School Districts, Charter Schools Save Money By Impoverishing Support Staff

There’s a vast difference between working in an unionized district and working in an unorganized charter or public school.

Photo Credit: Official U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Brandon R. Holgersen

At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, two of America’s largest school districts, Chicago and Philadelphia, closed a total of 73 public schools between the two cities. Thousands of employees were laid off, including many food service, janitorial and security workers. In Philadelphia alone, 1,202 safety staffers who prevent violence when students aren’t in class, were laid off.  

These cutbacks are only the latest instances of a sustained effort to cut costs by eliminating unionized positions in public schools either by hiring support staff through private entities—like Aramark or Sodhexo—or by replacing traditional schools with charters, which are usually aren’t covered by a school district’s union contracts. There’s a vast difference between working in an unionized public school district and working in an unorganized school of any kind. For employees, non-teacher positions at non-union schools usually means little job or retirement security, limited (if any) health insurance, sick leave, vacations, and much lower pay.

“The last day of work was absolutely the hardest day of my life,” says Takeeva Thompson, who was just laid off from her job in the cafeteria of Kohn Elementary, an overwhelmingly African-American school in deep Southside Chicago. “I know we are looked at as being the unimportant staff in the school, but I took pride in what I did and I appreciated the relationship I had with those kids. I helped buy uniforms, I helped with homework, I helped with funerals because we lost children to gun violence. We are like second and third mothers to a lot of those children.”

Thompson’s job included helping the cooks prepare hot meals and doing other work around the kitchen, cleaning meat, chopping up fruits and vegetables, and keeping everything organized, but she often ended up assuming duties well outside of her official job. Thompson was part-time, usually working about five hours a day for about $12 or $13 an hour.  But as a member of UNITE HERE Local 1 she received comprehensive healthcare and paid holidays, sick days and vacation.  

“District-operated employment in these areas [custodial, food service, and transportation] provides good, stable jobs for community people looking for part-time work, for those with less formal education, for single parents,” according to a 2008 report from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice. “Mistreatment of local employees…harms the social well being of the community. …Prior to outsourcing, many custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers have extensive employment history in their districts. Most live in the local community.” The authors go on to cite a 2004 Oregon study about contracting out non-teacher services, which found that for every 25 privatized jobs in public schools there is “a loss of $233,000 in earnings that would have been spent in the local economy.”

Thompson knows people who have ended up working in support position in charter schools, where they were paid between $9.22 and $10.80 an hour with healthcare benefits too expensive to afford.

“All of them complained about the respect issue, being written up or fired for really small things,” says Thompson. “You can go from 40 hours a week, and then if you speak up or say the wrong thing, you may go down from 40 to 16. It’s a big difference in the way that they are treated and the way that we are treated.”

Charter school proponents often cite flexibility in hiring and firing as one of the essential attributes of these private-public institutions, which have expanding enrollment steadily since the turn of the century. (During the 2009-2010 school year 1,627,403 students were enrolled in charters nationally, by 2012-2013 the number grew to 2,278,388.) The great majority of America’s 5,997 charter schools (that’s over 1,000 more than in 2009-2010) do not belong to a large network like KIPP, California’s Green Dot, or Philadelphia’s Mastery. Instead they are single site organizations, which usually lack the internal capacity to directly hire support staff. Positions are often outsourced either to international corporations, such as Sodhexo, or local companies like Los Angeles’ Royal Dining Foods which advertises “FOOD SERVERS AT NO EXTRA COST.” (They also offer janitorial services.) Phone calls inquiring about the meaning of “food servers free of charge” were not returned. Without knowing the details, it stands to reason that services can only be provided at a vanishingly low rate if the workers aren’t getting paid much and don’t get many benefits.  

"In California what you have seen is a hollowing out of the classified [non-teacher] workforce,” says Michael Ganley, director of organizing for the California School Employees Association, another state that is home to hundreds of charters. “There are no school bus drivers for charter schools, there are no sports or physical education at most of these places. In most charter schools in California their classified workforce has been reduced to single digits."

Non-teacher staffing doesn’t often come up in the debates over charter policy. “That’s not something we have any information on at all,” a representative from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools told AlterNet. Similar sentiments were expressed by almost every non-union organization contacted for this article.  

“[Non-teacher staffing] is not really something we’ve dealt with, the resources that we do have are focused on teachers,” says John Bray, communications representative for the National Charter School Resource Center. “It depends on the specifics of the arrangement. But the arrangements with charter schools are so different, how they are organized, how they operate. There’s just a lot of different ways of getting the floors waxed.”

There is no such thing as a typical charter school. Baltimore’s charter schools are covered by an unusual law that extends the school district’s union contracts, for both teacher and support staff, to charter school workforces. A slate of labor-friendly candidates have a strong majority in New Haven’s Board of Aldermen and according to Harold Meyerson, they recently “approved the application of a charter school to take over a shuttered public school but conditioned its approval on the charter’s agreeing to let its clerical and blue-collar employees unionize,” among other community benefit agreements. In New York City, charters are often co-located with public schools and unionized district janitors clean both.

Philadelphia’s Mastery network includes 12 schools, many of them ex-district schools the organization has taken over. According to Sheila Ballen, director of communications for Mastery, in their six “turnaround” elementary schools unionized district employees still work in the cafeteria. Not so the custodial employees, or the food service workers in the six middle and high schools. “Building engineers” are paid on the same level as those employed by the district, but Ballen does not know what the salaries are for the subcontracted janitorial staff because they are handled by third parties.   

While sub-contracting is very common among charter schools, it is also practiced by cash-strapped public schools looking to save on labor. By 2010, 64 percent of New Jersey public schools subcontracted with private companies for food services. From a managerial perspective, it is usually a much easier lift politically to privatize janitorial staff than teaching staff.  

“It’s been happening everywhere, in every state, school districts that are dealing with budget crunches, and unfortunately service personnel are perceived to be more dispensable,” says Shahrzad Habibi, director of In The Public Interest.What we’ve seen is that these jobs are significantly downgraded. If you look at how they are getting these savings and it’s just cutting labor costs to the point where you are making this into a poverty level job.”

Numerous union-funded studies have made similar findings. The Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice’s report found that school bus drivers’ wages in Pleasant Hill, Oregon fell by 42 percent after being contracted out. In Collinsville, Illinois Sodhexo promised the school district savings which would largely be made by cutting average hourly wages from $16 to $7.50. A 2011 analysis of a proposal to privatize New Haven the custodial services in the city’s public schools found that the “all of the cost savings from the GCA Services Group contract bid result from pay and benefits cuts.” The average custodian’s household income would be cut in half, while healthcare and retirement benefits would be entirely eliminated.

A report about food service subcontracting in New Jersey found that the median hourly wage for “food preparation workers in educational services” was $8.15 in 2007 with little access to healthcare. Most of the cost-savings offered by private firms were directly connected to wage and benefit cuts. One worker interviewed by the authors says: “When [a private contractor] took over, it was $8 an hour to start…10 years [later] and it’s still only $8/hour.”

In school districts like Philadelphia and Chicago, employment at unionized public schools is one of the surest ways to obtain decent health coverage, above minimum wage jobs, and protection from the whims of management. There aren’t that many other jobs of this caliber in these neighborhoods and those that do exist also tend to be in the public sector, which continues to lose jobs despite increases in private sector employment (where many of the new jobs are low-wage). Without union contracts, educational support positions become just another Walmart-style job, with uncertain hours, rock bottom wages, and little-to-no healthcare coverage.

Thompson and her fellows in Chicago, and the unions that represent them, argue that they are not mere interest groups. They are members of the community, who are often deeply invested in the neighborhoods where they serve. At what cost labor savings?

Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter and editor based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.