EASTPOINTE — The fate of Local 120’s custodians was sealed at a special meeting April 15 when the East Detroit School Board voted 4-3 to privatize custodial services at East Detroit Public Schools.
At that same meeting, the board approved a bid for a three-year custodial contract with Grand Rapids Building Services. On July 1, the 23 custodians in Local 120 will each be out of a job.
The decision comes just months after successfully negotiating contracts.
“To keep with the progress of the deficit elimination plan, reductions of this magnitude are necessary. This is in no way a reflection on the skills, integrity or dedication of these employees,” said Superintendent Joanne Lelekatch. “Our job is to educate children while reducing the deficit.”
While confident in the recommendation she made to the board, Lelekatch admitted it was one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do.
“Privatization of the custodial, grounds and maintenance has been one of the most difficult recommendations I have had to make,” she said. “Every decision that has been made during the process has been emotionally taxing and extremely difficult.”
It’s been emotionally taxing for the custodial staff, too, many of whom felt blindsided by the move toward privatization and say they would have been willing to give up even more in their concessions, if they had known it was needed.
“I was quite shocked and taken aback — we had just signed a contract,” said Karen Borsa, president of Local 120 and a 17-year employee of the district.
“They never sat down and said we are at an impasse or anything like that. We sat down to negotiate in good faith. We asked for real numbers. We had to wait six months to get them. Once we got them, in two meetings, we were done and then, (about) 10 days later, the (request for proposal) went out.”
Their previous contracts had expired in July 2012. After they had the numbers, they worked out an agreement that included a 15 percent pay cut for the remainder of the fiscal year, a 10 percent pay cut after that and four furlough days per year.
“We brought a tentative agreement to the table on Feb. 11,” Borsa said. “It was unanimously voted on. Then 10 days later, I got called into the superintendent’s office and she handed me the RFP.”
The district was looking to receive proposals from private companies for the same custodial work for which Local 120 had just signed a contract. The contract was to run through June 30, 2015, but state law allows school districts to opt for privatization, regardless of union contracts.
District officials say it was a hard move to make — one they didn’t necessarily want to make — but one they had to make; the savings were too great not to, especially when operating at a deficit.
“We, as a district, have control over our expenditures, but the revenues are controlled at the state level,” Lelekatch said. “We have very little control over our revenue sources. We are working on that expenditure piece and we are reducing some of our expenditures.”
The RFP was a blow for the long-time union, but they wouldn’t be knocked down that easily. Using AFSCME resources, Local 120 formed an employee-owned business. They called themselves East Detroit Support Services.
“We put a bid in on our own jobs as an employee-owned company,” Borsa said.
They offered even more concessions in their bid proposal. But district officials say the proposal from the Grand Rapids-based company, with a three-year savings of $1,046,625, was the most responsible choice and one they just couldn’t pass up. At the special meeting April 15, Lelekatch recommended it to the school board.
The board approved it on a 4-3 vote, with board secretary Jon Gruenberg and trustees Deena Trochino and Jon G. Gruenberg voting against it.
“I believe the employees of the district should be employed by the district and not by a third party,” said Jon Gruenberg. “I also believe the savings do not have a significant impact on the current deficit elimination plan. When we vote, it’s a democratic process, and regardless of the way I vote, once the vote is in, even if it is not the way I voted, I support it.”
The decision wasn’t as easy to swallow for Local 120. Many of them have been left with a funny feeling.
“I’ve lost $6 an hour over the past two years already — that’s how much we have taken in cuts — and we would have taken more,” said Dennis Frohriep, who’s been with the district for 27 years.
“There was a woman there from Grand Rapids,” Frohriep said. “Why would she be there? She didn’t know how they were going to vote. Not knowing if they were even going to privatize, why was she there? Apparently, she knew something I didn’t know.”
“It takes longer than 10 days to put an RFP together, so obviously they were working on the RFP and what they wanted to put in it well before our contract was ratified,” said Mary Bobiney, a 26-year employee. “I believe it is unethical. There was a law passed a few years ago that says they can outsource whenever they want, but I think they knew when they were in negotiations with us.”
Others are fighting feelings of abandonment from a district they have been dedicated to for years, having made, as a union, multiple financial contributions to various school programs through the years — most recently in March when they donated $200 to the East Detroit Public Schools Open House Committee. They say that donation came with the gift of time, too.
“We actually boarded buses and went down to Detroit to pass out flyers to promote the school. Twelve to 15 custodians and kitchen workers got on a school bus to go pass out fliers in Wayne County,” Borsa said of the open enrollment promotion blitz.
It’s that kind of dedication that many in Local 120 say the district won’t get from a private company.
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