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"... And I'll turn on the heat when I'm done cleaning my yacht." (unethical New York City school custodians)

My 10-year obsession with changing the New York City school custodial system began one day in 1984 when I was dropping off my son at P.S. 87 on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The school's principal told me the city health department had just cited the school cafeteria. The cafeteria was so filthy that had it been a restaurant, instead of the place where 1,000 children ate every day, it would have been closed.

I said that we should talk to the custodian and ask that he clean it more often. She told me that she had already done that, and the custodian had retorted that his contract required only one cafeteria-scrubbing a week. And as for the health code violation, he didn't give a damn.

The custodian wore a coat and tie to school, never did any hands-on work, and supervised two cleaners. For this he was paid $40,000 to $50,000. He had put his wife on the payroll as a do-nothing secretary earning more than $20,000 (more than a new teacher made at the time). And he charged the school PTA $9,000 in fees (even though he worked no extra hours nor provided any extra services) for the PTA's use of the school for an after-school program.

I told the principal we should complain to the custodian's supervisor. She told me that they were members of the custodial union. I asked to whom we could address our complaints. She said, "No one."

The next school year, 1984-85, I was working as an investigative producer, with correspondent Arnie Diaz, at WCBS-TV News. I spent three months researching and producing a two-part series about the system and discovered that what was happening at my kid's school was the rule in New York, not the exception. By contract, custodians have their personnel sweep the classrooms every other day, scrub the cafeteria floor once per week, and clean windows three times a year.

You've probably heard something about the allpowerful New York school custodians; the first reformers' report came as long ago as 1942. (It concluded, as if written in 1994: "The custodial system itself does not seem to insure a proper degree of competent service on the part of the custodian.") And if you read The New York Times or watch "60 Minutes," you will occasionally catch an item on how the abusive system--a public system that operates totally for the benefit of the employees--just keeps on going. You would think that so much publicity, over so many years, would have generated enough public outrage to persuade lawmakers to change the system. But curiously, reform hasn't come, and that itself is proof positive that once a self-serving bureaucracy is in place and allowed to fester, sometimes it can take nothing short of dynamite to reform the system. In New York, the time for dynamite has come.

How did we get into this mess, anyway? The origins of the abusive contract that favor custodians lie in the 19th century, when custodians lived in the schools because coal-burning furnaces required constant tending. Since the schools were also their homes, the custodians were given enormous authority and autonomy. But when the custodians stopped living in the schools, instead of taking that authority away, the union successfully clung to its privileges and the now-familiar abuses began. (After all, once the custodians weren't living on the premises, their direct interest in keeping the place clean faded accordingly.) At mid-century, as the comfortable contract evolved, unions were in their heyday and were able to keep winning concessions from the Board of Education. Politicians, after all, tend to fear organized interests such as unions, which vote as a bloc, far more than the general public. And one potential check on this developing disaster--the press--was not then covering unions in a way that would have attracted adequate public attention, so contracts negotiated in the dark took root. And once they took root, inertia--combined with the difficulty of focusing public attention on a specific problem long enough to pass substantial reforms--set in.

They Rarely Do Windows

The custodians have the best of both worlds: By contract, they're treated like independent contractors even though they are highly protected civil service workers. The city Board of Education gives each custodian a lump sum of money based on the size of the school and he (it is almost always a white man) is then free to hire a staff that works for him.

This is how, in 1985, 200 custodians employed their wives as handymen but then used them as private secretaries. Why are they hired as handymen and not as secretaries? Because handyman pay is better, and there is no secretarial title. This misuse of the handyman position--a job that should be filled by someone who can fix a furnance or repair a broken window--is one reason schools are in such poor shape.

During my research for the WCBS series, I found that custodians could also buy jeeps and use Board of Education funds for 5/12 of the purchase price. They could drive the jeeps as their own and would own the vehicles after five years. Why jeeps and why 5/12ths? Well, the unstated premise of the contract is that we have a five month snow season in New York City and the jeeps are used to clear snow during this period. Using that logic, the Board spends $1 million on the vehicles annually.

Then there are the after-school building use fees. After school, in the evenings, on weekends, on school vacations, and especially in the summer, the public pays the custodians extra to use the schools. Even school teams had to pay for the use of a pool, gym or field. In most cases the custodian did no extra work and didn't even have to be there at night or on weekends, yet he would benefit from all fees.

The afternoon before the first report aired on WCBS in January 1985, I received a call at the office. The anonymous caller threatened that harm would come to the people involved if the report aired. I asked if the caller wanted to talk to Arnie, the reporter. He did, and repeated the threat to him. For the next week Arnie was accompanied by CBS security.

Four months after the reports aired, a new custodian contract was signed. The Board announced that fees to custodians for groups to use the school after hours had been eliminated from 3 to 6 p.m. It sounded like a great reform.

How wrong we all were. When the small print was released a few months later, the custodial fees from 3 to 6 hadn't been eliminated; they had been waived for a $5,650 raise, plus pension costs, for each of the custodians, for a total cost of $6 million, whether there were after-school programs in the particular school or not. We also learned that there was a loophole: Most elementary schools still had to pay fees. After this "reform," for example, at P.S. 87 we were forking over $5,000 in fees while the custodian collected his $5,650 in extra salary from the Board. The upshot? After the 1985 "reform," it was actually more expensive for us to use our school.

The Janitor is Rich

In 1987 I left television news and went to work for Andrew Stein, then City Council president, as his education advisor. I suggested that since the custodial contract was again being negotiated that I put together reports and work with the media to focus public attention on the scandal.

I visited one principal who had documented how often his custodian was not in the building--including the first day after the Christmas recess, when the school was frigid and nobody could turn on the heat except the custodian. When the principal finally found him in the afternoon and asked why there wasn't any heat, the custodian told him to mind his own business.

This principal, Norman Kaufman of J.H.S. 141 in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, a middle-class neighborhood, also complained to the custodial supervisors, including Kirby Coughlin, the Board of Education manager in charge of the custodians. Coughlin never responded effectively. (In ensuing years, we would find out that Coughlin allowed custodians, who had been convicted of embezzling from their budget to keep their jobs without any kind of suspensions. He also allowed a convicted drug dealer to become a custodian who then set up a rifle range in the basement of the school, bought marijuana, and shot off rifles.)

During the first five months of 1988 Stein was able to galvanize the city around this issue. The reports documented the abusive school use fee system, the jeeps, the nepotism, the lack of accountability. Public pressure was put on the Board of Education and its negotiating team. Unfortunately, it was the same team that had negotiated the 1985 "reform" contract, and they fooled us again. The new president of the Board announced a "historic settlement."

Once again, a close reading of the document showed that the "reforms," except in one potentially important instance, were shams. For example, the new contract called for a one-year moratorium on the purchase of jeeps while the Board studied all custodian equipment purchases. (The custodians can buy $3,500 computers, fax machines, and refrigerators and, like the jeeps, own them after five years.)

One year later the moratorium ended, and the custodians bought 200 jeeps, twice the normal number. I asked Coughlin what happened to the contract-mandated equipment study and was told that, "We don't need a study." To no avail I reminded Coughlin that the study was required by the contract.

The after-school fees were also "reformed" along the lines developed in the 1985 contract. Instead of eliminating them, the custodians again agreed to waive the fees in the evenings and on the weekends. In exchange, the Board paid them a huge salary increase above their automatic 5 percent annual increase--on average, an extra $6,000. In 1988 these fees and salaries in lieu of fees totaled $35 million.

The one promising reform, or so I thought at the time, was the replacement of custodial supervisors, who were members of the custodial union, with new Board of Education "plant managers." The contract stated that the new supervisors would be non-civil service and would serve at the pleasure of the chancellor.

This appeared to be a good reform. Then it was scuttled. First, the union, with the ink still wet on the contract, went to the state civil service commission and challenged this provision. It argued that the position should not only be civil service but "promotional." The custodians won. The commission ruled that the new plant managers had to be hired from a civil service list and that only custodians were eligible to take the test.

The other union strategy for undermining this reform involved Coughlin. I started to hear that Coughlin was hiring former custodians and pressuring all the plant managers to go easy. Having watched two reform efforts crash when Coughlin had been part of the picture, I was suspicious of him. My doubts were confirmed when I received, from an anonymous source, a copy of a 1979 letter on Local 891 stationery. The contents of the letter were inconsequential, and I couldn't figure out why it had been sent to me. Then I read the names of the executive board on the side of the letter, and there was Kirby Coughlin's name. It all came together: The fox was in charge of the henhouse. A former custodial union leader was now supposed to be making custodians work for the public.

Dirty Deals

Since the summer of 1988 I continued to work, as a parent, with the media to expose the custodial system and keep the issue alive. In 1990, when Joe Fernandez was selected as chancellor, he ordered the schools to contract out as custodians retired. Within a year, 88 schools had private contractors.

Unfortunately, the man in charge of contracting out was Kirby Coughlin, and once again principals had no one to support them when they tried to hold the private custodians accountable. There was also an effort to undermine the private contractors. For instance, when P.S. 156 in Brooklyn was closed in the Fall of 1993 during the asbestos crisis, all the children were shifted to P.S. 12. This practically doubled its student population. However, the private contractor at P.S. 12 was not given any extra money to clean and maintain the crowded school. And the P.S. 156 custodian and his whole staff were allowed to stay and do nothing back at their now-empty building.

Another event in 1992 kept the pressure on the custodians. I contacted Frank Devine, a producer at "60 Minutes," and persuaded him to do a piece about the system. He and correspondent Steve Kroft aired their report in November 1992, a highlight of which was secretly taped footage of a custodian puttering around his 35-foot yacht during school hours.

But the 1993 firing of Chancellor Fernandez, the hiring of his replacement Ramon Cortines, and the David Dinkins-Rudy Giuliani mayoral campaign sidetracked attention from the time of the "60 Minutes" report until this spring.

Then this past May, Cortines announced that the Board and Local 891 had agreed to a "revolutionary" new contract. Some critics of the system thought that this represented progress, while others, most importantly Mayor Giuliani, attacked the reforms as inadequate. One reporter told me that he was confused by the opposite positions taken by critics. I said the different positions result from how you answer the critical question: Do you believe that reforms of the contract can transform the custodial system? Or do you assume that it is so hopelessly divorced from the public good that only a fundamental restructuring and competition from a significant privatization test could make a difference?

The problem, in my view (and in the new mayor's), is not just the contract; it is the entire culture of the system. The union and its dedication to the traditional ways of doing business, which means children and staff be damned, is a major problem. Also, the reprehensible attitude of too many custodians that they are not a part of the school community--a situation exacerbated by the growing number of minorities in schools while many custodians are white--needs to be changed.

This whole culture cannot be altered even with genuine contract reforms, and the reforms put forward in May were not genuine but simply more Board of Education "reforms." For example, the Board announced "the elimination or reduction of all custodial labor fees for after-school activities, saving users such as community groups $4.5 million per year city-wide." But a study I worked on in the city Comptroller's Office documented $35 million in fees and extra salaries in lieu of fees in 1988. Those costs have gone up during the past six years.

The Board also proposed "the establishment of new cleanliness standards to be judged by school principals and the tying of promotions to performance." These revolutionary ideas at the Board, but will it happen? No. To make it work, every principal would have to sit down with the custodian and the custodial supervisor, who is in league with the custodian, and negotiate a cleaning and maintenance plan. The principal's rating would be based on the custodian executing the plan. However, the principals would quickly get worn down by the custodians who love to negotiate.

The Board also proposed "a cap on high-end custodial salary rates at 1991 levels." This sounds good until you realize that the cap would be $76,859. Only Board of Ed officials would characterize such a cap as a reform. Custodians should earn about what the average teacher makes ($35,000), not more than twice that.

And finally, the Board proposed that "all equipment purchased by custodians remain Board property." The problem was not just who ended up owning the jeeps and computers, but that they were being bought at all. If the custodians stopped spending money on jeeps and their wives, they might have some money for a flushometer or for a ballast for a fluorescent light. Genuine reform would authorize principals to approve or disapprove purchases and personnel decisions.

This is a public system that needs to be dismantled and restructured. Mayor Giuliani is proposing to contract out between 300 to 500 schools and run a competition between the regular custodians and the private contractors. What is also needed, though it has yet to be proposed, is a complete dismantling of the dysfunctional central custodial system. School-based management would bring control of the custodians to the principals and the neighborhood school councils.

If a custodian wants to hire his wife as a handyman, let the school council decide if she is qualified. If he wants to buy a jeep for snow removal, let the principal review it. If he refuses to work and let his men work, let the school council bring him up on charges. And if he wants to charge for allowing the PTA to use the school, let the school council decide what fees are appropriate.

Besides the rejection of the phony "reform" contract in May, there was some progress toward cleaning up the existing system in June. For one, after an expose in New York magazine, the chancellor forced the resignation of the chief executive of school facilities. Also, by September, Kirby Coughlin and his three borough managers will probably be gone from their supervisory jobs.

Right now in New York City everyone is walking around saying, "Let's go Rangers" or "Let's go Knicks." When I think about the whole corrupt, dysfunctional custodial system, I quietly say to myself, "Let's go Rudy."
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Author:Fager, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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