Showdown over Lynn school custodians

February 16, 2017

By BRIDGET TURCOTTE and THOMAS GRILLO

LYNN  — The school committee wants changes to be made to a Home Rule Petition that would transfer management of the school’s maintenance staff to the school department from the city’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD).

The move, engineered by Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy, is designed to capture $1 million in additional school spending and avoid a state penalty. Under the revised rules, the city’s school custodians and maintenance staff are headed back to the school department. Earlier this week, the city council voted unanimously for the change.

The school committee, which did not have a vote in the transfer, was scheduled to hold a public comment session to hear from the employees and learn more about the change. But the meeting was canceled because of  last week’s snowstorm. Instead the discussion continued Thursday night, after the council vote. Kennedy said she would take all comments into consideration before signing off on council’s decision.

“I will take several days after this lands on my desk to decide if I’m going to sign it or not,” said Kennedy. “It has not been presented for a signature yet. By the city rules, I have 10 days once it is presented to me.”

Should Kennedy decide to veto the decision made by council, the panel would either make changes to the petition or drop it. But if she signs off, it moves on for approval from the legislature.

James Lamanna, the city’s attorney, said while the school committee can recommend to the city council that they rescind their vote from earlier this week to move custodian management to the school department from ISD, the council is under no obligation to reverse its vote. In addition, the school committee may ask Lynn’s Beacon Hill delegation to reject the home rule petition for the change, but they too are under no obligation to support it.

The controversy erupted in 2006, when former Mayor Edward “Chip” Clancy shifted the custodians and maintenance staff from the school department to the city. The transfer came, officials said, because the schools were dirty and the janitors lacked supervision.

When ISD inherited the 166-employee unit in 2007, it included 120 permanent custodians, 20 substitute contract workers who filled in for absentees and 26 maintenance technicians for 26 schools.

ISD Director Michael Donovan said as a result of the switch, the custodians were held accountable, attendance and timekeeping policies were implemented, employees punched time cards, vacation rules were tightened and the city outsourced lots of maintenance project work.

Today, the department has 57 custodians and a dozen maintenance workers with a budget of $14 million.

While there’s agreement that ISD’s management of the custodians has worked well, Peter Caron, the city’s chief financial officer, said shifting the employees to the school department will add about $1 million to the city’s required school spending.

In a quirk in state law, while salaries for the custodians as city employees counts toward school spending, their health insurance premiums do not. By moving them, the city can add health insurance and reduce the deficit.

Caron and the mayor say moving the custodians to the school department will allow them to include those health care costs in the budget.

Richard Germano, vice president of AFSCME Local 1736 representing the workers, has said they are happy to go back to work for the school department. But because the petition calls for two custodians who clean City Hall to be transferred to the schools in addition to a supervisor position that has yet to be filled, Germano is concerned that the supervisor position was designed with a specific candidate in mind.

“That section is very offensive, as a taxpayer of this city,” he said. “The chief of inspectional services, I guarantee, will get this job. I guarantee it was put in there for him.”

Caron did not present the committee with any indication of the costs the transfer would pose to the school department because he said the numbers were not requested. School Business Administrator Kevin McHugh argued he sent an email to Donovan on Feb. 6 that has not been returned.

“This doesn’t feel correct,” said committee member Patricia Capano. “I feel that there are statements behind these statements that we are not aware of.”

Board members also shared concerns that the hiring process was in violation of state laws because the document does not indicate that veterans will have preference. The process outlined also requires three people to sign off on hiring a potential employee, rather than leaving the responsibility to the superintendent.

“When this comes to you (Kennedy), I would like to see it be sent back to the council to have them correct these things,” said committee member Donna Coppola.

“I share concerns about the costs,” said member Jared Nicholson. “I would appreciate seeing a breakdown. We spent a lot of time talking about the net school spending and this is entirely motivated by school spending. It was initiated by city council but everything in it is being implemented by the school department.”

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Bridget Turcotte can be reached at bturcotte@itemlive.com. Thomas Grillo can be reached at tgrillo@itemlive.com.