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Durham Public Schools To Consider Bringing Custodians Back Into The Fold

A sign indicates the janitor closet inside a Wake County public school.
Brian Batista
School custodians are asking the Durham Board of Education to make them full-fledged school employees. Currently, most work for a private contractor called SSC Service Solutions.

School custodians are asking the Durham Board of Education to make them full-fledged school employees. Currently, most work for a private contractor called SSC Service Solutions.Denise Riggins supervises a crew of custodians who clean Hillside High School. At Thursday's school board meeting, she said they work long hours with no benefits.

“We deal with a lot of issues, chemicals, feces... We deal with a lot, but we don't get vacation time,” said Riggins. “If you go out, you're going out with no pay. That means my family's going to be short, and they're going to be short, too.’

The Durham Board of Education is considering whether to resume control over custodial services at Durham Public Schools, or to adjust the current hybrid model. The company SSC Service Solutions holds the private $7 million custodial contract. But workers have long complained about a lack of benefits and low pay. One subcontractor even failed to pay employees when it went bankrupt, resulting in a federal lawsuit.

A report from private consultant Core Management Services said the school system would save $2 million per year by outsourcing all custodial work.

But DPS Coordinator of Energy and Sustainability Brian Callaway takes issue with that figure, saying it doesn’t consider all costs or fairly compares with the cost of bringing custodians into the school system.

Callaway says outsourcing the SSC Service Solutions contract gets in the way of the school district's environmental goals. Callaway says students report seeing custodial staff throwing entire bins of recyclable materials in the garbage can.

“Recycling has been more of an afterthought, it seems, and this contractor has been permitted to operate with quite a degree of impunity with a lot of aspects of their contract and this has been considered one of the smaller, 'Oh, don't worry about that,' kind-of pieces.”

Callaway says Durham schools spend about $340,000 per year on landfill and recycling operations.

Callaway wrote in an e-mail that Durham could save an additional $70,000 with perfect recycling. But, he wrote, to achieve any savings, Durham schools would need to drastically increase recycling, which would require a twofold effort: first, increase the rates that students and staff participate in recycling, and, second, assure that the separated recyclable material is distributed into the correct dumpster.

“Unfortunately, we have seen the recycling program undermined for years by widespread lapses by our custodial contractor on that second effort,” Callaway wrote.

Ansel Grimes of Service Solutions said custodians recycle as they're able, but that they'll throw out any containers that are contaminated with food, and they don't sort recyclables.

The Durham Board of Education says it has released a request for proposals for custodial management contracts, which are due in December. That same month, the board will also conduct an administrative review over whether to take over management of custodians in house. 

Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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