Fighting reorganization, the custodians’ united to fight back
For the past nine months, the custodians of the Washington County Education Support Professionals have empowered one another and raised the volume and power of their voices to make sure they were heard.
They made multiple phone calls to the members of the Board of Education to build relationships and share information. They created an online petition that sent emails to every school board member with each new signer. They attended a school board meeting 30 members strong, announced themselves by name — a move that UniServ Director Sean McKillop said “shook the bones of the board members” — and when the meeting was over, stood up and walked out together in a powerful show of unity.
A reorganization plan would require established custodians to reapply for their positions and more.
Washington County Public Schools (WCPS) and its superintendent announced a reorganization plan last spring that would require established custodians to reapply for their positions; move night shift custodians to day shift positions; assign custodians to regions rather than schools, requiring travel among as many as five school buildings in the course of one shift; and eliminate standard position titles like custodian, lead custodian, and custodial engineer, a move that would lead to a reassignment of 10% of custodians and force a pay cut of up to 28%. Sixty of the current leadership positions would be cut to just 43.
“This plan is the kind of out-of-touch move that you expect huge corporations to make without regard to people and communities who will be hurt,” said WCESP President Anne-Marie Hines. “We expect better in Washington County, and should do better for our custodians and the students, parents, and teachers who depend on them every day.”
The plan is now on hold thanks to the hard work and determined advocacy of WCESP members and union leaders who will meet with WCPS before the end of the year. No custodians and few administrators thought the plan was a good idea, citing harmful effects on safety, cleanliness, efficiency, and familiarity with the school community. But the pressure is still on the custodians as they face uncertainty and take hits to their morale and pride. Looming is the knowledge that the last position held by the new director of maintenance and operations was one where he used privatization as a means to cut costs — a tactic known to have negative impacts on school communities.
“We understand the need for efficiency and potential cost savings, but WCPS has not once come to us and asked our highest performing teams: ‘How does your ship run so well?’” said Melanie Boyce, the custodial manager at South Hagerstown High School.
“When we custodians get somewhere we love, we create a truly ‘custodial’ relationship with our school — there’s ownership and pride. When you start shifting us around, shaking up a school team, and breaking down a workforce, it’s just not good.”
“We’ve learned that you can’t be scared to voice your opinion. We are all taxpayers, parents, grandparents, and neighbors,” Boyce added. “I want my colleagues to know that there is strength in unity — this plan would already be happening to us if we didn’t have the union to bring our voices together.”
And those relationships with school board members? More than one of the activist custodians still texts with his assigned board member on a regular basis. As Boyce said, “We’ve developed a real rapport with them. They’re not faceless to us, and we’re not faceless to them.”