How the Critics of Custodial Outsourcing Are Right

By Andrew Canicatti

The new reality for K-12 schools is one undermined with increasingly uncertainty, but the responsibility of providing quality education for every student demands effective budgets and hard decisions. To meet their goals, administrators are considering every cost-cutting measure available, including custodial outsourcing, as a way to reduce spending and safeguard funding for educational priorities.

Superintendents, school boards and parents are right to worry that custodial outsourcing sometimes delivers attractive prices while falling short on quality issues and community concerns. Schools in the market for budget relief shouldn’t have to let the operational costs of providing an education hamper the real work of education, and that’s where outsourcing can help. The critics of custodial outsourcing often get it right when they say that chasing low-price contracts can end up costing the district more in the long run. But the bigger picture is more positive.

Mounting budget pressures on schools continue to feed the trend toward outsourcing. From 2003 to 2015, the number of Michigan school districts outsourcing custodial climbed from 34 to 2,831. And it is working for schools: In a 2012 white paper by Smith Weaver Smith Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in education, the company found “the preponderance of research data, in contrast to anecdotal evidence, in support of outsourcing if the school district exercises due diligence in negotiating and managing the contract with a for-profit service provider.”

The question is now how school leaders can advance beyond the usual conversations about outsourcing and earnestly evaluate whether the savings promised will responsibly address the needs of their schools. By focusing on shared goals and values, schools and custodial partners can ensure savings and services that responsibly address the unique needs of their learning environments.

Performance Assurance

A price for custodial outsourcing is only right if it’s based on an honest assessment of the costs involved. For example, a solution that cuts custodial work hours or on-site supervision will likely only give schools new, and maybe worse, resource management problems than they had before.

A well-designed custodial program should minimize — among other costs — administrative overhead, but those gains could be undermined by quality and communication issues. When the responsibility to address these shortfalls lands on school principals, the hidden cost can be enormous: Every hour principals and key staffers lose to logistics is time and energy lost to educational initiatives, losses multiplied by each student they serve.

On the other hand, an hour saved for educational priorities is multiplied by all the faculty and students they affect. Principals already spend at least 15 percent of their time on internal school management and maintenance, according to an online survey administered to members of the Ontario Principals’ Council. A custodial services provider should be able to leverage efficiencies in supervision, quality measurement and reporting that free principals from day-to-day operations while empowering them to ensure quality for their community.

A custodial outsourcing contract should focus heavily on accountability and results.  A prospective custodial service provider should be fully able to address these questions:

• How do you assure adequate on-site supervision?

• What metrics do your supervisors use to test quality?

• What reporting do you provide to principals and superintendents to ensure standards are met or exceeded?

• How do you secure open, streamlined and responsive communications?

• How inclusive is the scope of work, especially considering the school’s event calendar and other community needs?

Responsible service providers will back up their answers to these questions with performance assurance, a contractual agreement to sacrifice a portion of their management fee if they fall below a mutually agreed upon standard. By asking for performance assurance, schools can feel confident that the provider’s proposals rely on actual efficiencies that drive quality service and cost savings, without sacrificing one for the other.

Smooth Operations

Transitions aren’t always easy, but changes implemented for cost savings need to avoid excuses and the expenses that soon follow. Service providers should have transition plans and training programs ready to deliver positive change without burdening district leaders with growing pains and unforeseen headaches.

One issue service providers should anticipate is community concern over the effect on long-term employees and the school environment. The National Education Association reports that K-12 support personnel (including custodians and other staff) are remarkably loyal, staying an average of 12.7 years. Providers experienced with K-12 schools will have strategies ready to keep district custodians in schools. Retaining institutional knowledge and cultural continuity are nice to have, while the must-have is a service provider that can answer these questions:

• Do they have dedicated resources for transitions?

• Will the transition team stay on site and be available until the transition is complete?

• Are their transition plans specifically tailored for K-12 schools?

• Do they have training and retraining programs unique to learning environments?

• Will they commit to retaining staff the district wants to keep?

In fact, instead of seeing custodial outsourcing as adversarial to school employees, service providers can help districts facing budget issues that are forcing cuts to their own custodial departments. Service providers can propose plans that allow a district to retain custodians they would otherwise be unable to keep on full-time, and experienced partners should be able to help districts retain staff while still producing cost savings that free up budget for other needs.

To read the entire article, check out the July/August issue of School Construction News.


Andrew Canicatti serves as the northeast regional vice president of education for ABM, a New York-headquartered facility management provider.