SAUGUS — School Committee Chair Jeanette E. Meredith said the committee could vote as early as next week on outsourcing school custodial work to a private company.
“There will be a public vote,” Meredith said Thursday night during a tension-filled committee meeting.
The School Department laid off 21 school custodians on Tuesday and the workers, including employees with decades of service to the schools, will be off the job on June 30.
The custodians and more than 60 supporters protested the layoffs outside Roby School Administration Building on Main Street prior to Thursday’s meeting.
They crowded into the evening meeting to demand the committee vote to rescind the layoffs and witnessed the committee’s deep divisions and disagreements over privatization.
Committee member Elizabeth Marchese said the committee has not had a chance to review the privatization bids and said the bids must be reviewed and voted on in an open committee meeting.
“We were lied to. We didn’t even see the numbers,” she said.
That demand prompted committee member Linda Gaieski to claim Marchese has previously expressed support for putting custodial work out to bid.
“We can speak freely and all the truth will come,” countered Gaieski.
Meredith confirmed in an interview following the committee meeting that members did vote on custodian privatization in an executive session held during a May 8 early morning committee meeting.
She said she could not discuss details of the vote until impact bargaining with custodian union representatives over benefits owed custodians upon their employment termination are completed.
But acknowledgement of the vote calls into question why the committee did not return to open session on May 8 to disclose the vote as required by state Open Meeting law. In fact, the committee agenda for that meeting states that the committee is “not to return to open session.”
Meredith earlier this week cited a bargaining exemption in the law in explaining why she could not discuss the vote.
Meredith and Gaieski both favor privatization. Marchese opposes it and committee members Marc Magliozzi and Lisa Morgante did not state their views on privatization Thursday night.
School Superintendent Dr. David DeRuosi said laying off the custodians generates $1.1 million annually in “potential” savings. He did not disclose the cost of hiring a private service to clean the schools.
Meredith said Saugus needs the savings to pay for education programs, including ones aimed at improving the middle school’s ranking as the eighth-worst performing school of its kind in the state based on student assessment scores.
“I feel really bad. This decision was not taken lightly. What drives me in my decisions is the 2,600-plus students of Saugus. The savings will go directly back into education. Cuts have always come from teachers and programming. I can’t in good conscience watch this continue,” Meredith said.
But the custodians, their relatives and supporters said a private firm will not be able to adequately replace the custodians.
Lauren Surette, mother of a Waybright Elementary School second-grader, said school custodian Erik Fisher knows every one of the school’s 200 students.
“We don’t want strangers rotating through our schools,” Surette said.
Charlene Savary, a 2016 Saugus High School graduate and daughter of custodian David Savary, said custodians are an extra set of eyes helping with security in schools and watching out for students who may be having problems.
Jean Swanson, mother of custodian Chris Swanson, said friends working in schools in other communities that have adopted custodial privatization said the communities have seen a rise in school thefts and a turnover in employees assigned to schools by private cleaning firms.
“It doesn’t work,” she said.
Carlos Gonzalez has cleaned and maintained Saugus High for 21 years and he thanked the committee Thursday for his opportunity to serve the town. Gonzalez said he was “heartbroken” to receive a layoff notice and questioned how a private firm will master the school’s complicated heating system.
“The kids are going to suffer,” he said.
Saugus High will be replaced in less than two years by a new middle/high school under construction and reorganization plans call for closing three elementary schools.
Thursday night’s committee meeting is just the latest chapter in the custodians’ bid to keep their jobs. Precinct 5 Town Meeting member Ron Wallace intends to read a resolution in support of the custodians at Monday night’s Special Town Meeting.
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93 representing the custodians is “pursuing a number of options,” said council legislation and political action director Jim Durkin, to challenge the layoffs.
“What happened at the May 8 meeting is either gross incompetence or an attempt to shield themselves from the public,” Durkin said.