The Persistence of Privatization

Person by person, block by block, school by school. Since Spring 2009, about two dozen custodians from Maine School Administrative District 75 (MSAD 75) have beat back the lingering threat of privatization.

They have sat with one neighbor at a time, spoken at numerous school board meetings and labor organization events, started a petition drive, generated favorable media support, and handed out an uncountable number of flyers at public functions.

They even persuaded several business owners to hang banners outside storefronts carrying the simple but revealing message: “Save our Custodians.”

The tide of solidarity has risen so high, the school board finally agreed in September not to subcontract their jobs for the remainder of the year. Come January, however, it could be back to square one.

“This group of custodians has shown strength and dignity under the enormous pressure of losing their jobs,” says Mary Kay Dyer, president of the Merrymeeting Employees Association (MEA), which has 83 members including the 24 custodians whose jobs are threatened. “They have stood together, worked hard, and I think earned the respect of everyone involved. They won’t give up.”

One beacon of hope, she says, is a new superintendent who seems willing to discuss the drawbacks of privatization.

“I am hoping the superintendent and school board see that they have some very loyal and hard working employees who work, live, shop, worship, and vote in this district,” she says. “You can’t get that from subcontracting, which doesn’t save money in the long run when it comes to kids.”

The custodians who could still lose their jobs next year live in Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Topsham and Harpswell Islands. Together, they have more than 400 years of combined experience working at the high school, middle school and six elementary schools in the district.

The four communities comprising the district are more like one village where “everyone is family,” says Barbara Douglas, who has worked at William-Cone Elementary School for 32 years.

“I love this school, the staff and students,” says Douglas, 63. “I would do anything to help them. This will not be the case with a subcontractor. You won’t have the same people here every day.”

Along with food and transportation services, maintenance jobs at schools are the most likely to be privatized. “Outsourcing” and “privatization” mean the work done by public school employees is transferred from the public to the private sector (for-profit companies). When education support professional (ESP) jobs are privatized, ESPs lose those jobs. According to NEA’s organizing manual, “Beat Privatization,” even when ESPs are hired by a subcontractor they rarely receive the same pay and benefits. After privatization, employees also can lose the benefits of union representation, such as a grievance procedure, health and safety protection, and security against arbitrary treatment on the job.

Barbara Douglas, custodian at William-Cone Elementary School for 32 years.

At MSAD 75, Associate UniServ Director Sue Rowe knew the best way to fight the threat of privatization was, in part, to build community support by educating citizens about the contributions ESPs make in the lives of students.

“These custodians know the families going back three generations,” she says. “Education is not a business. It’s personal. These are kids we’re dealing with.”

Rowe has been on hand since the first anti-privatization meeting took place more than two years ago. At the meeting, she and MEA leaders immediately went from peacetime organizing to crisis organizing.

Custodian JoAnn Walker attended that first meeting where participants began deciding on talking points, a slogan, identifying allies, and other steps necessary for an anti-privatization campaign.

“What has worked for us so far has been fast action on the union’s part,” Walker says. “We have not let the public forget that privatization is still on the table and it is not a good idea.”

Eventually, the group came up with the slogan, “Keep our SUPER custodians in MSAD 75 schools!” In flyers and posters, “SUPER” was spelled out in vertical form as:

Support staff

United with

Parents for

Excellence and

Reliability in our


Educational technicians, secretaries, clerks, bus drivers, groundskeepers, mechanics and food service workers also belong to MEA. More than 200 teachers belong to Merrymeeting Teachers Association, a separate local and bargaining unit. On several occasions, petitions with thousands of signatures were presented to school board members along with letters of support from teachers, ESPs, parents, and others.

When asked what advice she has for other Associations confronting the threat of privatization, Dyer says that they must persist.

“I would tell other members that the battle is long and takes a toll, but that it is worth the fight,” she says.

With an agreement close at hand for the custodians of MSAD 75, Dyer mentions the unquantifiable value of these career ESPs.

“Subcontractors won’t put in the same effort as these people who have 20, 25, and 30 years experience,” she says. “These custodians care about the children. That’s one reason they’re fighting so hard.”