By Patrick McCallister
For Hometown News
About 480 school custodians and groundskeepers could be looking for new jobs after June 30. However, they might get their old jobs back -- only they wouldn't be working for Volusia County Schools.
The school board approved a plan Tuesday, Feb. 12, to ask companies to bid on providing school custodial and grounds-keeping services now done by unionized employees. The vote was 3-2. Dr. Robert Moll, deputy superintendent for financial and business services, told the board privatizing the services could save the district $15 to $21 million over the next five years.
But the district won't know if the move would save money until it makes a request for proposals and sees what companies will accept to do the jobs. The school board is keeping open the possibility of rejecting all offers and keeping its employees.
"What we were looking at last night was a lot of theoreticals," board member Stan Schmidt, Port Orange, said in a phone interview after the meeting. "We won't know until we talk to these contractors."
Schmidt voted for the possible change.
There aren't many companies that could court the district. Russ Tysinger, maintenance director, told the board there are only about six to eight companies that could handle the district's 76 schools and 10 ancillary facilities. District staff will prepare the request for bids by March 1. By May 28, the board will either accept a bid or choose to keep its employees. The district will ask bidding companies to retain the existing employees.
Tom Wenz, president of the union representing the workers, said he feels a lot of deception was involved before the vote.
"The biggest thing, we were totally blindsided," he said in an interview after the meeting. "I had e-mails saying this was never even under consideration. They had to be cooking this for a while. I've been asking about it for over a year, and I kept hearing 'No, no, no, no.'"
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 850 Council 79, represents the school district's custodial, grounds-keeping, bussing, maintenance and cafeteria workers
The move is the district's latest effort to cut costs. In previous interviews, Dr. Moll said the district has lost about $93 million in funding since 2007 and shed about 1,900 job positions, most through attrition. The district asked Volusia voters to give a little more for schools.
However, the voters narrowly declined a referendum to add a property-tax surcharge of $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value for four years in the last general election. The money was intended to go into the school district's operating budget. If it had passed, it would have added about $26 million a year to the schools' budget. The district's operating budget is about $459 million. It's expected to drop to about $434 million, or less, next fiscal year.
Adding to the financial woes, the schools are continuing a five-year student decline. Saralee Morrissey, the district's director for planning, recently reported to the school board that Volusia public schools will have about 60,500 students next year. That's about 650 fewer than this year.
With fewer students, there's less state and federal revenue. Because the student reduction is uneven among grade levels and geography, the district can't reduce its fixed costs equal to the losses. In the annual 20-day count, the district had 61,124 children and youths in its schools and programs. That's down more than 500 students from the previous school year's 20-day count.
Mr. Schmidt said more cuts and changes are on drawing boards and spread sheets.
"This is the first of a lot of stuff that'll be coming down the road," he said. "There's going to be a whole lot of pissed off people. Eighty-two percent of our costs are personnel costs. If you cut $25 million, it's going to affect people."
Mr. Wenz said the district staff and school board are going for the drastic before seeking the reasonable. He said the district could have approached his union for cost-cutting and wage-concession ideas, but hasn't.
"They never come to us and asked how to save money," he said.