ITEM PHOTO BY OWEN O’ROURKE
Janitor Don Dube cleans the lunchroom at the Drewicz Elementary school in Lynn.
By THOMAS GRILLO
LYNN — A 10-year-old decision to transfer management of the school’s janitors to the city’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD) is about to be reversed.
In a move by Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy designed to capture $1 million in additional school spending and avoid a state penalty, the city’s school janitors and maintenance staff are headed back to the school department.
The controversy erupted in 2006, when former Mayor Edward “Chip” Clancy, shifted the janitors 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.
“The schools weren’t as clean as they are today, I can tell you that from personal experience,” said Michael Donovan, ISD director who took the added responsibility of monitoring the workers.
When Donovan 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.
“Since then, we changed the culture,” he said. “People were held accountable, we instituted attendance and timekeeping policies. Employees punched time cards, we tightened vacation rules, moved people if they were not working and outsourced lots of maintenance project work.”
The change also resulted in more of the maintenance crew doing more jobs, Donovan said. The job descriptions that once consisted of specialized assignments such as painters, glaziers, master carpenters and cabinetmakers were changed to “maintenance craftsmen” so they could do any job as needed, he said.
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 janitors 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 janitors 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.
Last fall, the state Department of Education threatened to withhold $11 million in school funds until City Hall boosted its net school spending. In a letter to the mayor, the state said a review of the city’s end financial report discovered Lynn was in violation of state law.
“Your plan stated that in fiscal year 2016 through 2019 the city would appropriate $2.2 million in addition to each year’s net school spending requirement … the city did not even meet the fiscal year net school spending requirement and you have not budgeted sufficiently to meet the city’s obligation in fiscal year 2017,” the state’s letter said.
Caron and Kennedy say moving the janitors to the school department will allow them to include those health care costs in the budget.
“The net school spending issue is a major factor in making this change,” Caron said. ‘Going forward that money will start counting toward schools.”
While Donovan said he agreed to the change, he expressed concern about what will happen to the schools when they are no longer under ISD’s command.
“My fear is they will be dirty again because there will be no accountability for the employees,” he said.
But Kennedy disagrees.
“It will depend on who the superintendent hires to oversee the custodians,” she said. “Mike has been a good manager and if the superintendent hires the proper candidate, they will be able to run as tight a ship as Mike has.”
Richard Germano, vice president of AFSCME Local 1736 representing the workers, disagreed that the schools were not well-maintained when they were under school department management.
“You can go to any company and find some guys work at one pace, while others work at another pace, you won’t have perfect employees anywhere,” he said. “But we are happy to go back to work for the school department.”
School Superintendent Dr. Catherine Latham declined to comment on the merits of taking on the janitorial staff.
“That’s a policy decision,” she said. “It’s up to the School Committee, the mayor and the City Council. I’ll work with whatever they decide.”
City Councilor-at-Large Brian LaPierre said the switch to the schools has a good chance of passage when it comes to the City Council for a public hearing and a vote on Feb. 14. If approved, the measure will be sent to Beacon Hill lawmakers for final approval.
Thomas Grillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.