The presidents said the policy contradicts what they were told at a department meeting in March, when Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said principals would be able to choose between existing union custodians and TEMCO Service Industries, a for-profit cleaning and maintenance company based in Manhattan.
"In all actuality, the DOE will privatize District 26 through attrition," said David Pinzon, PTA co-president of MS 172 in Floral Park. "That was not what we asked for and not what we were led to believe."
Many schools oppose privatization of custodial services, an initiative the department claims will save money, because they fear their facilities will not be cleaned as well and employees will not be subject to sufficient background checks.
Pinzon said the Department of Education's plan is being tested in Region 8 in Brooklyn and Region 3 in eastern Queens, a new grouping of school districts that includes 25, 26, 28 and 29.
"Their explanation was that your schools are in the best shape, so it was a good place to start," he said.
The Department of Education did not return phone calls by press time seeking comment.
Pinzon said he and other PTA leaders in District 26 in northeastern Queens first learned about the department's initiative in June.
When classes resumed in the fall, several schools that had vacant janitor positions over the summer - PS 115 in Glen Oaks and MS 74 in Bayside, among others - found that TEMCO had taken over, Pinzon said. The new schools on the Glen Oaks Campus were also turned over to TEMCO, he said.
In September the department told district schools that they would all have private custodians by April, Pinzon said. But he and other leaders complained to state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) and City Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis), and when the two elected officials contacted the Education Department, the policy began to change.
After a meeting by opponents at MS 67 in Little Neck in February, the department told district principals they could choose between union and private custodians but would have to make up any cost difference out of their own budget, Pinzon said.
Later in a March 11 session with the department, Klein told district schools that they would not be forced to pay for their choice but would have to share any savings with the department.
But when PS 178 in Hollis and PS 205 Bayside had unexpected vacancies, the department told the schools they had to accept the TEMCO service instead of bringing in new union custodians, Pinzon said.
Schools are concerned about cleanliness, Pinzon said, adding that TEMCO employees are not properly trained and lack both the expertise and adequate supplies for the often demanding job.
"They're like the engineers of a ship," he said of the union custodians. "A school building is very complicated."
Parents at the new Glen Oaks Campus have complained that the buildings are not being well-maintained by TEMCO, said Suzanne Windland, PTA president at PS/IS 266 on the campus and PS 178 in Hollis.
Windland also said safety was a concern, since TEMCO has only required a background check dating back seven years while the union required 10. She said the company has since changed to 10 years, but its sub-contractors are not checked at all.
"It's like they run the schools like another business," Windland said. "That's not good enough for parents."
Last month a TEMCO building manager at MS 74 in Bayside was fired after a background check demanded by the community found he had a history of felony convictions, including weapons possession, Weprin's office said. The councilman subsequently held a protest at the school May 4 to demand that the privatization be suspended.
"I will not allow the Department of Education to jeopardize the well-being of our children through a pilot program that has clearly demonstrated that safety is not a priority," Weprin said.
Arthur Aufses, a TEMCO spokesman, said in addition to the 10-year background check, building managers are screened by the Department of Education. Sub-contractors are chosen from a department-approved list and are further vetted by the company to ensure they pose no threat and are well-qualified, he said. The employee at MS 74 had lied about his record, Aufses said.
While the privatization is said to affect all of Region 3, the issue seems to only have galvanized the schools in District 26.
"I haven't heard any complaints," said Nat Washington, president of School Board 29, where TEMCO maintains PS 270, a new school in Laurelton. "They work with us." SB 29 is based in Queens Village.
TEMCO has not replaced any of District 29's union custodians yet, said Maris Bailey, head of the district's Presidents Council. Citing safety concerns, she said, "We would prefer to have the regular service."
In District 25, School Board President Arlene Fleishman had not heard of TEMCO taking over any of her schools in Whitestone and Flushing but said she supported the union custodians, noting the close relationship between principals and janitors.
"They work with the school community," she said.
Pinzon cautioned other districts to protect their union custodians before it was too late.
"They do such a good job and they're so quiet about it. No one thought about it."
Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@times
©2004 Community News Group
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