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Custodian Cuts Add Up to Dirty Schools, Says Union Head

Consecutive years of cuts have reduced cleaning time, staff in BC schools.

Katie Hyslop 23 Oct

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here.

With a campus that’s nearly half a kilometre in length, attended by about 2,000 students and 250 staff, New Westminster Secondary School is one of the largest high schools in British Columbia. But the school employs only one daytime custodian and six evening custodians to clean it.*

That’s one person to clean the tables after lunch; ensure bathrooms are functioning and fully stocked with toilet paper, paper towels and soap during school hours; clean up after any student with the stomach flu; and keep an eye out for strangers wandering the halls during class hours.

“There used to be four,” Marcel Marsolais, president of CUPE Local 409, said of the daytime custodian positions at the high school. “Now it’s down to one, and she’s literally run off her feet.”

In fact, the high school employs the only daytime custodian in the district, which includes 12 schools with 7,500 students this school year.

It’s been two years since the New Westminster School Board cut nine daytime custodian positions across the district, replacing them with afternoon and evening shift custodians in order to balance its budget. Prior to that, six custodian positions had been cut since 2009.

New Westminster is not the only school district to cut custodial positions: Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District cut six full-time equivalent custodian positions in 2015/16; Langley laid off 26 custodians and maintenance staff in 2009; and Burnaby cut eight full-time equivalent custodian positions in 2014.

In fact, the New West board justified the move because so many other districts had decimated their custodial staff already, particularly the daytime custodians, in the name of balancing budgets, Marsolais said.

“Some of them have kept them in their larger secondary schools,” he said, while cutting day custodians in all their other schools.

Other districts, like Boundary, have cut the number of months custodians work from 12 to 10, meaning custodians aren’t working during the summer to prepare for the first day of school in September.

A survey issued by CUPE to its custodial members in spring 2017 backs up Marsolais’s assertions.

Just over 1,100 custodians from 40 of the province’s 60 public school districts responded, about 40 per cent of all public school custodians represented by CUPE. The union is still working on a comprehensive report on the results.

But preliminary data shows more than 50 per cent of surveyed custodians weren’t able to clean schools to a level that satisfied their own health and safety expectations. Over 80 per cent reported their job is either not done or is poorly or partially completed when they’re absent on sick leave. And more than 70 per cent said they did not have enough paid hours to complete their work, with some saying they work outside of paid hours to finish the job.

“The survey results basically said that our custodians are proud of their work, and if they can’t get it finished in a day, then they don’t feel good going home,” Marsolais said.

While the current NDP government has increased funding to hire teachers in response to a Supreme Court of Canada ruling, it hasn’t increased education operating funds, said BC Teachers’ Federation president Glen Hansman. So cuts made to custodians haven’t been restored.

“They’ve changed the capital side of the budget, but everything on the operational side of the budget is locked up with the funding formula review that they’re doing,” he said, referring to the provincial government’s review of the current per-student funding formula for school districts. “There have been no dollars for staffing.”

When school boards make cuts to custodial positions, said Marsolais, who worked as a custodian before becoming union local president, it’s typically to protect classroom activities.

But custodians have a direct impact on learning conditions too, when classrooms aren’t cleaned, garbage isn’t taken out and minor repairs aren’t completed in a timely manner. “Some pretty disgusting bodily fluids are left the whole day,” Marsolais said.

Some districts like New Westminster have a flex team of a few custodians who provide back up for the district, but they can’t make it to every school every day.

In the absence of a daytime custodian, if the washroom runs out of toilet paper at 1 p.m. and the afternoon or night custodian doesn’t come until after kids go home, someone else at the school needs to pick up the slack.

Dave DeRosa, president of the BC Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association, said that someone else is usually a principal.

“I can speak to occasions where the principal has the toilet paper and does do the rounds,” he said. But administrators don’t have the health and safety training to do custodian jobs, he said, and taking over custodian duties means administrative duties get neglected.

“It’s just the reality that when the system is squeezed, others have to take up the responsibility.”

And retention of staff for all school jobs is difficult, including for custodians, DeRosa said.

“We all get sick in the flu season, and I’ve experienced [times] where we haven’t had replacements for multiple days for custodians on the night crew,” he said. “And there’s no intention to blame on that example, it’s just the reality that it’s getting harder and harder to find folks for that job.”

Maintaining healthy and safe schools is the top priority, DeRosa said. Often the little things that get neglected can build into bigger programs.

“Maybe some of the little pencil marks here, pen marks here, a little graffiti here and there. And then before you know it a couple of months has gone by and there’s the sense that the physical structure is deteriorating,” he said.

The Tyee reached out to the BC School Trustees Association for comment, but they were unable to meet our deadline.

Marsolais is confident that government will put more funding into school operations in the next provincial budget, just in time for the new school funding formula to be implemented in the 2019/20 school year. But trustees also have power to make changes to custodian workload and staffing levels.

“They can instruct senior administration to do studies, take a percentage of the budget if there’s an unrestricted surplus and ensure that those hours and positions are restored,” he said.

“We always see cuts to support staff: that’s the first place they go, and for the most part it’s custodial or it’s the operations department that suffers.”

* Story updated on Oct. 23, 2018 at 11:22 a.m. to correct the number of evening custodians at New Westminster Secondary School.  [Tyee]

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