‘I’ve never seen anything so dirty.’ Tacoma school custodians say cuts having impact

It’s the job of custodians at Tacoma Public Schools to maintain healthy, safe and clean schools.

For some, that’s becoming more difficult.

Custodians say that current staffing levels aren’t enough to keep up with growing infrastructure and busier facilities, reducing their ability to perform full-service daily cleanings that include sweeping and vacuuming floors and wiping down walls. They say they worry about students trying to learn in messier environments.

“When you’re understaffed, you just don’t get a chance to clean everything,” said Matt Monnett, a 10-year custodian with TPS.

“It’s just hard, walking out the door at the end of your shift … and you see a door that you couldn’t get to and it’s dirty,” added Alex Rusev, a 17-year TPS custodian. “You come home, and it’s constantly in your brain.”

This year, they faced a new challenge — the loss of eight custodial positions, which reduced the custodial workforce from 206 budgeted positions to 198. Currently, 192 custodians are employed, and the district is actively seeking to hire more.

Those eight eliminated positions — a result of the district’s budget deficit — included one custodian at the Central Administration Building, one custodian at Point Defiance Elementary School and six “relief custodians,” who are extra custodians assigned to fill unexpected absences.

District spokesman Dan Voelpel told The News Tribune all Tacoma schools currently have custodians.

“Our goal is not to reduce the ongoing level of service,” Voelpel said in an email. “We will continue to clean buildings using the same practices we have in the past — and the same practices other school districts use — whenever we’re shorthanded due to unexpected absences, such as illnesses.”

The district and Operating Engineers Union 302, which represents the custodians, are currently in bargaining for a new contract after its previous one expired in September.

When asked about the timing of sharing the concerns, Monnett maintained that while custodians would like to see a wage increase, the higher priority is more staff, which doesn’t seem likely as TPS funds tighten.

“Of course we would love to have back the positions we have lost in all job categories, but that’s not the financial reality right now for us or many other school districts. We’re adjusting throughout the district to this new normal,” Voelpel said.

Monnett added that he raised his concerns about cleanliness prior to the start of bargaining in August, referencing an April meeting where he spoke in public comment to the district’s board of directors.

“We’ve heard rumors that there may be employee cuts to our department. If so, this would be detrimental to the children,” Monnett said in April. “We as a district are already failing them in this regard, and we cannot provide a clean and healthy environment for them to grow and learn.”

Level of service

While Tacoma Public Schools’ enrollment has remained fairly steady and in some cases declined in recent years, the district has grown its infrastructure — not in the number of buildings, but in the size of them.

A bond measure passed by district voters in 2013 replaced or modernized more than a dozen schools, in many cases expanding square footage. A new $535 million bond will hit ballots next year and would replace other schools.

Meanwhile, the district has increased its budgeted custodial staff from about 187 FTE in the 2014-15 school year to 208 in 2018-19, according to past district budgets.

Still, the department rarely reaches its allocated number of positions, Monnett said, adding that he sees high turnover rates.

When it comes to changes in Tacoma’s levels of cleaning service, Monnett pointed to a five-tiered system of expectations in a U.S. Department of Education planning guide.

The guide states there is not a nationwide standard for describing school cleanliness, but offers that a Level 1 cleaning is a “spotless building,” while a Level 5 cleaning “can very rapidly lead to an unhealthy situation.”

Monnett says that at the moment, most Tacoma schools are at a Level 3 — “the norm” for most school facilities and does not pose any health issues — but are moving more into Level 4, which is “not normally acceptable in a school environment.” At a Level 4, “classrooms would be cleaned every other day, carpets would be vacuumed every third day, and dusting would occur once a month.”

Dan Voelpel told The News Tribune that the district does not use the guide Monnett refers to and that cleaning standards have evolved in-house. The facilities leadership team is currently starting a revision process that will involve consulting with some other districts, he said.

Custodial stations at TPS are divided based on square footage. According to the district’s Custodial Housekeeping Duties document, no station — or school — is to go more than three days without full service.

“Custodial staff are to adjust their work assignments and provide full service on the vacant station,” it states.

Monnett told The News Tribune recently that’s not happening and that some schools can go days with only a “pick-up,” which mostly consists of emptying trash and securing buildings.

“At the pace we’re going, we’re never going to have schools seeing full service on a regular basis,” he said. “... We as a body are upset about not being given the ability to clean the schools well enough for the children. If we had proper staffing, kids would not be spending time in environments that are less than acceptable.”

The district will continue to use the same practices it has in the past, Voelpel said, including sending in relief custodians to cover shifts or set up a two-day cleaning schedule, where facilities are cleaned over the course of two days instead of one.

“No student or staff safety will be compromised,” he said.

Budget woes

Custodians aren’t the only group within TPS that’s lost positions.

The administration was forced to reduce positions district-wide following a teacher strike in 2018 and a loss of levy funding following decisions by the state Legislature to fully fund education as part of the McCleary decision. Tacoma school nurses have recently spoken out about their staffing concerns.

TPS is down, overall, about 156 positions compared to the start of the 2018-2019 school year.

Monnett recognizes that budget trouble is tough for all involved. He circles back to the state Legislature when it comes to fixing funding.

“I think it starts at the state level,” he said. “I may not always agree with all of the decisions my school district makes … but I think there’s something to be said for the fact that when McCleary hit and Tacoma was affected negatively, one of the first things (central administration) did was before they laid anybody off, they went for a lot of directors and a lot of assistant directors.”

Rusev echoes Superintendent Carla Santorno’s testimony in Olympia for a funding fix.

“She’s constantly trying, and I applaud her for that,” he said.

In its 2020 Legislative Agenda, the district advocates for funding changes that would help support staff.

The agenda requests modifications to the state funding formula to “increase funding for support staff such as, but not limited to, McKinney-Vento (homeless) liaisons/social workers, psychologists (mental health), nurses (IEP supports), guidance counselors, custodians, teaching assistance, office support and non-instructional aides, security personnel and parent involvement coordinators …”

In the meantime, what remains in terms of cleanliness is concerning, said Justin BossBuffone, a custodian with TPS for two years.

“The main thing — forgetting budgets and all that — I’ve never seen anything so dirty in my life and not be able to do something about it,” he said.