N.Y. Custodians Rule Their Empires

Times Staff Writer

It's nice work if you can get it.

For almost half a century, custodians, responsible for supervising the maintenance of schools, have occupied an autonomous empire within the New York City educational system.

Some custodians earn more than school principals, seldom report to work and are just about impossible to fire. Almost 250 of the custodians who are required to employ handymen instead hired their wives as secretaries--increasing family income in one case to over $100,000. Custodial supervisors also are members of the custodians union, automatically building conflict of interest into any disciplinary proceedings for those they supervise. Even custodians with the worst records routinely are promoted because of seniority.

In many cases, custodians do little to make schools pleasant places for students to learn. Chores not specifically spelled out in the union contract often remain undone. Many custodians turn down requests by principals and teachers for such essential tasks as moving furniture because they are not in the contract.

Under the contract, classrooms can be swept only every other day. The number of broken windows a custodian must repair in any month is enumerated. Custodians don't have to fix doors at all and have to scrub cafeteria floors only once a week.

According to an extensive report on the custodial system by Andrew Stein, president of the New York City Council, when Health Department inspectors visited one school, where 800 students use the cafeteria daily, the floor was filthy. When the principal requested the cafeteria be cleaned more often, she was told: "It's not in my contract."

"The lack of a hands-on approach by a majority of custodians has serious implications in the maintenance of the schools," Stein's report said. "Most custodians do not perform any maintenance work, even the minor repairs required of them by their contract. Instead, they refer even the simplest problem to the central Board of Education. Each year, custodians file approximately 50,000 maintenance requests."

The annual backlog: 21,000 requests.

Last year, the Board of Education initiated a $4.4-million program using handymen to start fixing some of the schools. The custodians union refused to cooperate, so maintenance work by outside contractors is inspected by principals untrained in construction procedures.

Custodians are treated as independent contractors, although they belong to the International Union of Operating Engineers. The average custodian earns a base salary of over $50,000 a year and salaries are capped at $63,793. But clauses in the contract allow many to earn much more. For example, extra charges are added to salaries if schools are kept open beyond normal classroom hours, or on holidays or weekends.

Some principals complain about custodians' unauthorized absences. Investigators from Stein's office found some custodians reported absences for half the school days in a month. The reasons included union business, visits to other schools, personal reasons and trips to the hardware store. Under the union contract, custodians are paid an extra $6.90 every time they go to a hardware store to purchase supplies.

Not all custodians, of course, conform to the stereotype. "There are custodians who take pride in their schools, consider themselves part of the school community and work hard to keep their schools clean and well maintained," the Stein report noted. "However, they accomplish this despite their contract and often in defiance of their union."

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