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When the common cold conquers an elementary school, it often causes the absence of school custodians who clean the classrooms where the illness was spread.

“When that flu epidemic broke out last year, I was at a school for two weeks [substituting for sick custodians],” said Angela Almond, a field custodian in her seventh year with Fairfax County Public Schools. Having substitute field custodians available to fill in for absent team members is a “big relief” Almond said.

“On a daily basis, there are 50 or so schools that call out [with sick custodians],” she said, adding that most of these schools are elementary level.

“When a school calls out and you can’t fill that position that day, the school can’t be kept clean,” Almond said. “The bathrooms are cleaned. The classrooms…”

A proposed $1 million in the school system’s advertised 2013-14 school year budget could add 19 field custodian positions, helping alleviate workload concerns voiced by these cleaning teams.

“During the deepest part of the recession, this was one of the areas that we cut,” School Board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville District) said about custodian positions, during a budget meeting Feb. 7. “It was difficult because we are… continuing to open new schools and we are continuing to add on more trailers, so the school where the custodians were ill, on leave, etcetera, there was no ability to bring in a substitute… The rest of the people present had to shoulder the additional responsibilities, which was difficult with the additional workloads.”

In addition to increased workloads, most of FCPS’ custodians have not received a pay raise in four years and have had no cost of living increase, Almond said.

“Our custodians are one of our most overworked worker populations,” said School Board member Ryan McElveen (At-large) during the board’s Feb. 7 vote to approve an adopted budget. While money has been included for the positions, it is not a done deal. The School Board’s advertised budget is a request for funding from the Board of Supervisors, the funding arm of local government. During previous budget years, the School Board has requested more money than it has received from the Board of Supervisors, which has resulted in cutbacks to initial spending plans.

Funding for additional field custodians was included in the current 2012-13 school year budget, but Superintendent Jack D. Dale said these funds were not spent because of other spending needs.

“It was included in the budget last year and then we were ready to begin implementing [the budget] but then the School Board … I forget when, maybe in July, asked us to identify potential savings to offset the mathematics textbook [purchase] that we took out of year-end balance,” Dale said. “So, at that point in time we had already obligated ourselves to continuing contracts for all our employees, so we were left with few places to go [to find funding].”

The School Board votes to adopt its 2013-14 budget in May.

“I hear from principals all the time that the cuts that we had on custodial staff did affect their schools significantly,” School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason District) said. “We did do this last year and I hope with the approval of this amendment we can start hiring these field custodians.”

Fairfax County Public Schools includes 27 million square feet of facilities to clean. The number of custodians assigned to a school varies based on the school’s size. Almond said at large high schools, as many as 16 custodians are split into day and night shifts. At the elementary school level, there could be as few as one daytime custodian, with a crew of three or so cleaning at night when children are away.

“This proposal [of $1 million for additional field custodians] is really focused on adding support for custodians throughout the elementary schools to really substitute for those who are out ill, sick or on leave because that is really where we become understaffed,” Dale said.

Custodians like Almond said their hope is the funding will be implemented as soon as possible.

“It would really help,” she said.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com