Budgets and Jobs at Stake in Fight Over Knox County Schools' Outsourcing Plan

A proposal to outsource school cleaning services could put hundreds of low-paid county employees out of work

After a temporary reprieve last spring, Knox County School custodians and their allies are girding themselves to fight the outsourcing of their jobs to a local firm come next year.

"At this point, people like us who are concerned about this are just waiting to see what they would pay," says Lance McCold of Jobs With Justice, a worker advocacy group that has taken up the custodians' cause. "This is supposed to be a cost-saving measure. As it stands, the custodians aren't particularly well-paid.

"There are only two ways to save money in custodial service—you reduce service, or you reduce the compensation of the people doing the work. And when you hire a private firm you have to pay for management, for the firm to make a profit. Presumably, this comes on the backs of already poorly paid custodians. But this is speculation. It's the logic of how businesses work, not seeing the specifics of the proposals."

Which is problematic right now, because Superintendent Jim McIntyre, the architect of the outsourcing plan, claims that the many details of nine Requests For Proposals the county solicited in the spring are still proprietary—because outsourcing is still a proposal, not a policy.

McIntyre first proposed outsourcing in March, as a means of addressing budget shortfalls. In a climate of ever scarcer funds, calls for new textbooks and new technology, the school system also faced a $14.3 million increase in fixed costs for 2011-'12.

McIntyre proposed saving at least $1 million by outsourcing custodial services, budgeted at around $11.5 million this year. The proposal prompted some controversy, and led to protests by custodians and the Jobs With Justice Group. McIntyre eventually said there was not enough time to hold a vote and effect an outsourcing in time for the current school year. But he said the school system will have an eye toward implementing such a plan in '12-'13. It could come up for reconsideration as early as this month.

In the meantime, the county issued a request for proposals in the spring, and received nine bids on the project. Bidders were required to give monthly cost estimates based on two plans: one wherein the company would take over all services; and another whereby one currently employed custodian would be retained at each school in addition to the new outsourced staff. Bidders also provided an annual total for the cost of the first option, i.e. complete outsourcing.

The nine applicants included companies such as Southern Management; Knox Blount Maintenance; GCA; Aramark; Defender Services; OJS; Sodexo; and Jani-King. A "winner" has already been selected in Knox-based SSC Service Solutions, which submitted an annual bid of about $8.9 million for complete outsourcing of services. SSC Services is a 40-year-old firm that specializes in cleaning for educational institutions, and bills itself as utilizing environmentally friendly cleaning methods. They advertise "competitive wages," as well as benefits packages, including a 401(k) plan.

The RFPs required that bidders submit information on employee wages and benefits, but that information has not been made public. "We're concerned, because McIntyre could sit on this as long as he wants," McCold says. "To get something on the school board agenda, there only has to be a few days' notice before a vote. That gives the public insufficient time to review what this means—to the public, to the custodians, to the schools. We feel they're doing this without time for the democratic processes to happen properly."

As it stands, there are 340 custodians in the county school system, plus four support personnel and 21 substitutes. Hourly pay ranges from $7.35 for the least experienced substitute to $15 for a few top-rung supervisors. But most are in the low-mid section of that pay range, according to McCold, with the median wage standing at $9.50.

"If you do the math, that's less than $20,000 per year," McCold says. "I'm told by many of them that they have to get second jobs. I know I would find it very challenging to live and support a family on that."

For KCS employees like Sharon Caldwell, a 14-year veteran of Pond Gap Elementary School, the loss of her job could be devastating. Caldwell and her husband Terry care for two grown sons with disabilities. And though Terry has benefits through his job with transportation services at the University of Tennessee, his own working future is uncertain do to Crohn's disease and degenerative disc disease in his neck. "I've had to hold out right now, just because we were in over our head on some bills," he says.

"It wouldn't be good if I lost my job," says Sharon. "With the price of gas, the price of food, it takes all we've got just to live."

Main office custodian William Griffin has already seen the other side of a layoff, and he doesn't care to go back. "It would put me out of a job, and I had trouble finding this one," says Griffin, who came on at KCS three years ago. "I was at Sea Ray before, then they downsized. It ended up that I stayed at the mission for a year and a half before I got on here."

Beyond the personal cost, Caldwell says that outsourcing could be difficult, if not deleterious, for the school children she serves. "Those kids care about me," she says. "They get to trust you. Some of the kids have written letters. We live in a neighborhood with some of the kids. We see them at trick-or-treat, at the grocery store. The little ones run up and hug you."

School Board Vice Chair Karen Carson agrees that "there's a human aspect to the issue. Many of those custodians have been with KCS for years. You don't want to lose that. And I think whenever you outsource, you lose some control over the job performance."

On the other hand, she cedes that money is tight, and getting tighter. "And we get told by many people it could save millions.

"I want to see what the facts really are, what the savings would be, if any, and what the compromises would be, if any, in the service we deliver," Carson continues. "You can't make a decision until you've gathered whatever facts are available."

Of course, McIntyre has made that difficult by holding most of the cards close to his vest. He deferred comment for a Metro Pulse story until the issue comes up on the school board agenda. The key details of SSC's bid—employee salaries, benefits, etc.—have not been made available, even to school board members.

But a few details may already be coming out. As head custodian at Christenberry Elementary, 22-year KCS veteran Elbert Close would probably have the option of staying on should the school system choose the option whereby one employee is retained. At a head custodians' meeting, Close says he learned what that scenario would likely entail, and it doesn't bode well for the surviving employees.

Close says held-over custodians would face drastic cuts in both hourly wages and hours, as well as loss of health insurance, sick days, and personal days. "I may get lucky and get to stay under one of the options, but under those conditions I may leave anyway," he says.

The concern many who oppose the outsourcing share is that the real cost—financial, human, and otherwise—won't truly be evident until the school board has passed the point of no return, fired hundreds of loyal and longtime employees and replaced them with a service they know little about.

At a March school board meeting, Board Chair Indya Kincannon pointed out that the school system had tried a similar experiment back in the mid-1990s, resulting in dirtier schools and high turnover among custodians. (Kincannon was abroad, and difficult to reach for comment.)

The fate of Knox County's current custodians may become clearer soon, when McIntyre's plan and its resulting RFPs could get full board scrutiny, albeit with probably little deliberation time before a vote. If it comes to that, Terry Caldwell says he hopes board members will remember, "It's so much more than just a cleaning issue."