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The Business Of: School maintenance

Pros and cons of outsourcing building and grounds maintenance
Sodexo Education employees bring technical expertise to improve cleanliness in schools.
Sodexo Education employees bring technical expertise to improve cleanliness in schools.

At what point does it make sense for a district to outsource janitorial services and buildings and grounds maintenance?

Among those who may want to consider outsourcing include district leaders who would like to see equipment cost savings by participating in the buying power of a large company or administrators who are frequently engaged in labor disputes with janitor unions.

If district leaders are considering outsourcing maintenance, they should develop clear goals, says Rick Gay, purchasing manager for Baltimore County Public Schools. “Do not just make it a pure cost-savings decision,” Gay says. “Outsource if you think a company can help you beyond just saving money.”

Real maintenance savings

Financial stress caused by increased retirement costs in 2012 lead Joseph Otto, COO of William Penn Schools in Delaware County, Pa., to outsource janitorial services and equipment maintenance to Aramark, a food services and maintenance company. “We contract out food services and transportation, so outsourcing maintenance seemed like an easy decision when we needed to save money,” he says.

The district has saved $700,000 annually since signing up with Aramark. While this was primarily a fiscal decision, protecting the then-current maintenance employees was also important, Otto says. “When we sent out our proposal, we stipulated that the company we signed with had to offer jobs to our current employees and offer them at least the same hourly rates,” he says.

Even by paying employees the same salary, signing an Aramark contract saved Otto’s district money as the large company is able to purchase supplies and equipment at a lower rate.

Pricing stability can be a major benefit of outsourcing. Before a contract is signed, Aramark conducts a buildings-and-equipment assessment to predict what repairs will be needed, and builds those costs into the service agreement, says Steve Weiser, a regional vice president for Aramark.

Districts that keep maintenance in-house often wind up with a large backlog of work that needs to be done. “There’s work that a district wants to do,” Weiser says, “like preventative maintenance on HVAC equipment, but that costs too much.”

Money saved by outsourcing could, for instance, be put toward updating HVAC equipment or repairing broken floor sweeping machines, he adds.

Stephen Kleinsmith, superintendent of Nixa Public Schools in Missouri, says saving money was the reason he outsourced maintenance to Sodexo Education. Kleinsmith signed a five-year, nearly $12 million contract with Sodexo starting in 2008-09. Kleinsmith estimates the savings is $200,000 annually.

“I realized that by partnering with an outside company, more work could get done better for less money,” he says.

Sodexo created a facilities action plan to schedule the costs and frequency of equipment repairs. And it began monitoring energy use for fluctuations that can signal equipment malfunctions. It also re-landscaped school areas with low-maintenance plants.

Overcoming pushback from the community and school board was the greatest challenge in switching to contracted services, Kleinsmith says. It was necessary to show taxpayers that their money was being spent wisely.

Maintenance check

Beware of these issues when considering outsourcing

  1. Low-quality cleaning supplies: An outside company may be able to offer low pricing because their employees use the cheapest cleaning supplies available.
  2. Workers who are paid minimum wage: The company’s employees may be paid poorly, which means they may not be invested in ensuring a school is kept properly clean.
  3. Community outrage: Taxpayers may be unhappy if longtime school employees are fired in favor of cheaper, outsourced labor.
  4. Equipment ownership: Since the outsourced companies’ employees will often use district cleaning machinery, often contracts stipulate that district leaders turn over ownership of equipment to the company.
  5. Gaps in service: Custodians employed by the district are more likely to do any tasks not in their job description. However, some outsourcing contracts are written so that those employees will only do specific tasks.

“Superintendents, by design, should be progressive change agents,” he says. “It may be easiest to stick with the old way of doing things, but that’s not often the best or cheapest.”

By relinquishing maintenance management to Sodexo, Kleinsmith says he can focus on improved student learning. “My knowledge base is in academics and that’s where I should be spending my time,” he says. “Why not let a company whose knowledge base is in maintenance take care of that in my district?”

Outside companies bring expertise

Companies like Sodexo offer specialized service in HVAC equipment repair and maintaining fire alarms, sprinklers and lighting. These companies also help prevent playground injuries by maintaining surfacing at a proper hardness.

Sodexo can also provide expertise in making sure turf and grass athletic fields are soft enough so when students fall on the fields, they don’t suffer from traumatic brain injuries and other serious injuries, says Joe Albright, vice president of technical services at Sodexo Education.

And Sodexo’s custodian team is well trained on disinfecting all kinds of surfaces. “We know young students love running their hands along the wall as they walk down hallways,” Albright says. “So we make sure those touchpoints are disinfected daily to limit the spread of disease.”

Just like a facilities staff employed by a district, Sodexo’s team is on call 24/7. “If a boiler shuts down, we will send our employees out immediately to repair the equipment and make sure a school is safe to open,” says Albright.

Maintaining sense of community

Aramark employees become a part of the school community, says Jim Bostian, senior vice president, operational excellence. “Our maintenance workers wear plain, non-Aramark branded shirts,” he says. “They are available to set up for late night sports games and weekend events.”

Aramark tries to hire locally, as the most successful district-outsourcing relationship occurs when the vast majority of employees are community members. Local employees are invested in the maintenance of school buildings because it is their tax dollars being spent, he says.

Consistency of service is also guaranteed. “We place a major emphasis on quality control,” Bostian says.

“Our employees are intensely trained, and we hold them to a high standard to ensure students are in a safe environment.”

Aramark provides a week-long technical certification program for custodians, online maintenance technician courses, and safety training that is aimed at preventing student and staff members from slipping and falling in schools.

Valuing internal employees

District leaders considering outsourcing need to pay special attention to the content of contracts to ensure all maintenance needs are being covered, says Laura Larsen, coordinator of facilities and site operations for Stillwater Area Public Schools in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul. “In-house maintenance workers will do tasks not in their job description, like randomly help a teacher move desks,” she says.

“Some contracts are written so outsourced employees will only do the specific tasks spelled out in the contract.”

Larsen has worked for an outsourcing company and says the turnover rate was very high. “I was constantly hiring and firing people,” she says. “This means you are frequently training and losing that invaluable knowledge of the building.”

Keith Watkins, president of The New York State Association for Superintendents of School Buildings and Grounds, calls that knowledge of building systems and equipment “institutional memory.”

“I have employees who have been with the district 32 years,” says Watkins, who is also custodial director for Marcellus Central Schools. “They can tell you the exact age of the boiler and how to get a tricky piece of cleaning machinery to work.”

So if a contracted company completely replaces a custodial staff, that institutional memory is lost. Some maintenance contracts mandate that district property, such as cleaning machines, are owned by the outside company. “If you decided not to renew after your contract is up, you can find that what you spent thousands of dollars on now belongs to the company,” Watkins says.

It is important to remember maintenance companies are looking to make a profit from a district. And because school budgets are public, it is not hard for companies to come up with an offer that appears to save money, Watkins says.

“It is easy for a district to fall prey to attractive pricing,” he says. “But that might mean employees are paid minimum wage or the quality of cleaning supplies will be lower.”

Streamlining in-house operations

A well-run in-house maintenance team is the best for most districts, says Lee Prevost, president of SchoolDude, a company that offers operations management software. SchoolDude’s facilities management software can help increase efficiency in cleaning and maintenance times, thereby saving on labor costs and eliminating the need to outsource, Prevost says.

“Custodians are vastly outnumbered by the people who need their help,” Prevost says. “By requiring all work orders to go through an electronic system, admins and teachers stop and think about whether they really need help before creating a ticket.”

The maintenance process is streamlined through SchoolDude, Prevost says. Tickets that come in can be quickly assigned to maintenance workers. Progress is tracked throughout the life of the ticket and there is a permanent record of what equipment was serviced and when.

“Facilities directors can record in SchoolDude when HVAC equipment needs routine maintenance,” Prevost says. “By keeping up with that, they are saying to the school community that they are doing everything possible to protect the district’s assets.”

Kylie Lacey is special projects editor.