Filthy floors. Unsanitary bathrooms. Strangers in the hallways. These were everyday conditions at schools in the Upper Freehold Regional School District in Allentown, N.J.. The culprit? Privatization.
For 15 years, private contractors employed by the Upper Freehold schools walked in and out and all over district contracts. They came and went and in their wake left a mess that others had to clean up.
“It was a revolving door,” says Warren Gessmann, president of the Upper Freehold Regional Education Association (UFREA). “Those custodians did token cleaning.”
It wasn’t always like that. The district’s custodial services were once performed by UFREA members who were well-trained, lived and voted in the community, and enjoyed working with students. The fiasco began in 1995 when a private company low-balled a bid to clean the schools. The district accepted the bid, believing, like many districts strapped for cash, that they’d save money. They didn’t.
About 20 UFREA members under contract were terminated. At the time, if the district terminated a custodian it was required to pay the employee one week’s salary for every year of service. Some of the custodians had worked for the district for decades. The high expense of terminating all of them at once was thought to be enough of a deterrent for the district to decline any bids from privateers.
“We thought that made those jobs secure,” Gessmann says. It didn’t.
Last year, district and UFREA officials finally came back together on the issue, thanks in part to contract language that UFREA had wisely and aggressively negotiated in 1995 before the former custodians were fired. “We fought to keep custodians in our contract in case they ever re-hired them,” says Gessmann, an economics and current affairs teacher at Allentown High School.
That long-ago commitment to custodians paid off last year, when—following years of complaints from parents, students, teachers, and education support professionals (ESPs) about the questionable health and safety conditions at Upper Freehold schools—the board of education and district officials decided to once again hire in-house custodians.
“We were thrilled,” Gessmann says. “But custodians’ salaries hadn’t changed in 14 years.” In addition to establishing new salary guidelines, contract language had to be updated to align the custodial staff with other ESPs represented by the 300-member local, including secretaries and technical services workers.
The district is now phasing in the custodial staff, having started with 12 at Upper Freehold Regional Elementary School last fall. It is up to each new custodian whether to sign up with UFREA. So far, “They all chose to join,” Gessmann notes.
Another 15 in total are scheduled to begin at the middle school this fall, followed by the high school in fall 2011. The new arrangement is already reaping benefits. “The elementary school is immaculate,” says Gessmann. “We advertised, interviewed, and selected a great crew.”
Under the new contract, the district gains ESPs who view their work as a long-term career choice with benefits, job security, and the chance for advancement.
“This contract provides the opportunity for people to apply for decent jobs that hadn’t existed,” he says. “The teachers are thrilled for them, too.”
Photo: New Jersey Education Association’s newest members learn about union benefits during their orientation; (left–right) Marlene Lizer, Eliezer Portalatin, Walter Brennen, Ruth Ann Harper, and Isabel Sedlmayer wear new red caps that read: “NJEA #1—Today, Tomorrow, and Forever.”