To outsource or not to outsource?
The short answer: It depends
Kentucky School Advocate
October 2016
By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff writer 
When Calloway County Schools Superintendent Tres Settle emailed his peers to ask about their experiences with outsourcing custodial services, he received mixed reviews, “but the positives outweighed the negatives,” he said.

“Some superintendents shared with me that they had tried it and were not happy with it – and there are myriad reasons for that – and others shared with me that they’d been doing it for a while and were very pleased with the services.”

While the response might have been mixed, Settle doesn’t expect the interest in outsourcing to subside among districts statewide, including among those superintendents who asked him to keep them posted on the outcome of Calloway County’s outsourcing, which he terms “an exploratory venture.”

“As we continue to face funding shortages from all avenues we have to be creative in ways to manage our budgets.” he said.

“I think across the state you’re going to see more of it,” said Warren County school board Chairman Kerry Young. “Very seldom is there a school year that goes by that you don’t see another district that tries it. If you’re not looking for every way possible to save a dollar – every dollar saved is a dollar that can be spent on a child’s education – that’s what you need to be doing.”
An employee of Premiere Building Maintenance waxes a floor
at Warren Central High School (Photo courtesy of Warren Co. Schools) 

Many motivations
Tim Hockensmith, Nelson County’s chief operating officer, estimates custodial outsourcing saves the district about $100,000 annually among all the schools involved. Besides salaries, the district also saves money on supplies, since the company is able to purchase those in bulk at a reduced cost.

Nelson County Schools Superintendent Anthony Orr said the school board was motivated by both the financial and efficiency advantages of outsourcing, recognizing that building administrators face managerial challenges in hiring and supervising custodians.

“You take a high school and you’re going to have an assistant principal charged with overseeing the custodial staff,” he said. “And that takes a tremendous amount of time away from the other responsibilities that any assistant principal is going to have. So this was a way for us to save money but additionally give time back to that administrative team so they can do other things that are more critical to the mission.”

Settle said Calloway County Schools is projected to save $70,000 through the custodial contracting, but supplies and experience were other factors.

“As a superintendent, as a former school administrator, I’m an expert in the field of educational administration, but I have to give credence where credence is due to those who are expert in other areas,” he said. “So for me to devise janitorial schedules and plans and know what types of supplies to order, I’m not educated in that realm.”

Warren County’s outsourcing was initially prompted several years ago by the need to save money, but “since then it has almost been a necessity due to the low unemployment that we have in Warren County,” Facilities Director Mike Wilson said.

The district’s outsourcing custodial contract originally encompassed high and middle schools, plus some elementary schools, with no loss of district jobs, he said, due to retirements, attrition and hiring by the contractor. More recently, the district has been able to use its own staff for all the elementaries.

Wilson pointed out that even if outright personnel cost savings is a wash with outsourcing, the district will still save money on workers’ compensation. “Typically, with your custodial function, it’s where you have a lot of slips, trips and falls,” he said. “Those would fall on the vendor, not the district.”

Not always smooth sailing
Frankfort Independent began outsourcing custodial services about five years ago, Finance Director Tena Hartley said. “It worked smooth for a while and then it got lax,” she said. “The problems with outsourcing with a lot of outside companies now is not having supervision all the time with those staff coming into your buildings. And there is usually a big turnover with those staff that the companies have. So therefore you’ve got lots of different people that may have keys to your building and such. And that’s an issue, because a lot of those companies, they work at night.”

The Frankfort school board recently decided to end the outsourcing and was advertising for its own custodians, a move Hartley recommended. Four new custodians and a supervisor will join the sole district-employed custodian. The difference between the cost of those salaries and what the district was paying the contractors “will be minimal,” she said.

Settle said he heard from some superintendents in larger districts that even outsourcing companies have had trouble finding substitute custodians to work when their regular employees had to miss a shift.

“It’s like any other issue – it very much depends on the quality of the individuals that are employed by the outsource company,” said Dana Cull, principal of Boston Elementary in Nelson County, one of seven district buildings served by an outside custodial firm.
Timing is everything
In several cases over the last few years – among them, Fayette, Bullitt and Scott county districts – outcry from employees and/or parents prompted abandonment of outsourcing proposals. But when the Nelson County district was getting ready to open its new Thomas Nelson High School in 2012, “It was a good opportunity for us to test outsourcing without having to cut any of our custodial positions, since we were opening a totally new building,” Orr said. “This was a way of making a transition without having to cut anybody’s jobs.”

As the system lost custodial staff through attrition at other schools, the outsourcing has expanded. “If you’re not cutting people’s jobs, it’s a little easier to talk about outsourcing,” he added.

Currently, the Nelson County district uses an outside contractor to clean its two high schools and two middle schools, central office, alternative school and a K-8 school. The company also provides mowing services and summer floor waxing.
Janet Dema, an employee of GCA Services Group, cleans the glass in a door
at Calloway County Middle School. (Photo courtesy of Calloway County Schools) 
Advice from other superintendents and public input prompted Calloway County Schools to phase in its custodial outsourcing, which began in July. The contractor supplies 11 custodians, all of whom were former district employees, Settle said.

“As our current employees retire out or seek other employment opportunities, we can fill those positions through attrition with the hopes of moving toward full implementation of the outsourced service,” he explained.

The district chose to begin with contracted staff at the middle and high schools due to public concern about the elementary level.

“I felt that some of the public concern was that maybe strangers would be brought in and the important role that custodians play in shaping young lives and the board and I both listened to that concern and took it to heart,” Settle said.

Orr suggested two points to keep in mind when floating the idea of outsourcing: “roll this in gradually” to avoid displacing staff, and addressing community fears about outside people working in their schools.

“Anybody that comes in and works in the schools has to have the same background check” as district employees, he noted.

Several administrators said their districts communicated to the public that the employees hired by contractors had to go through the same background checks as their own employees. Settle said he asked the contractor to be sure that the checks are done periodically after the hiring.

Fears were alleviated in Nelson County once the contract was in place and the public saw the current staff still had jobs, Orr added. He cautioned that “stutter steps” are to be expected as the contract employees become familiar with the buildings and gain experience in getting the schools ready for special events like graduation that require extra touches.

Warren County’s Young advises boards looking at outsourcing to do their homework on the companies bidding for the work and, once the system is in place, not to be afraid to tweak it, as Warren County did when it switched contractors and when it went back to using district staff to clean elementary schools.

One extra step Warren County took was especially helpful and fair to both the district and companies bidding most recently, said Wilson, the facilities director. He took representatives of the firms submitting proposals on a tour of all the buildings involved.

“I wanted to make sure they had a clear understanding of what they were up against and see what our expectations were in the district,” he said. “The more communication you have on the front end, the better it’s going to be once the work gets started down the road.”
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