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South Bend school board approves contract to outsource custodial work

Justin Hicks

The South Bend Community School Corporation has been considering outsourcing its janitorial, grounds and maintenance work since August. On Monday, the school board approved an $18.3 million contract for custodial services with Tennessee-based SSC services.

School officials say aging buildings and the COVID-19 pandemic have overwhelmed current custodial staff, and outsourcing will allow administrators to refocus on academic needs.


Corporation CFO Kareemah Fowler said it will also help the district avoid outsourcing for one-off maintenance or cleaning projects, which she said they’ve been doing for some time. 


“I can tell you, situational outsourcing is very expensive because you’re doing it at the last minute and you really don’t have the time to do the necessary research that it takes,” Fowler said. “And what I’ve learned is that organizations will put an upcharge on some of those.”


The school board voted to explore vendors back in August, and accepted a bid from SSC last month.


In her presentation, Fowler said the $18.3 million contract includes labor, equipment and supply costs, as well as $2.5 million for capital projects.


She said the recommendation was for SSC to retain and pay the district’s current custodial staff. The company will allow employees to transfer with their seniority intact and offers equal or better benefits than the school corporation.


SSC officials at the meeting said the company has individual retention plans for each account and a dedicated recruitment team to attract new applicants.


But the union that represents custodial workers has opposed outsourcing, saying the district should build up its current staff rather than turning to a third party.


“We want to say that dilapidated buildings and buildings that are getting older are on the backs of our custodians,” AFSCME Local 868 President Mozell Bowens said at the board’s Aug. 16 meeting. “That’s not on the backs of our custodians, that’s on the back of our people that have been cutting our budget.”


SSC is also in the same network as Chartwells, a company the school corporation outsourced its food service operations to in 2019. 


“[Chartwells’] success is not from their management skills, it’s not from their directives, it’s not from their path or vision.” Bowens said Monday. “The reason why the school corporation was successful in this pandemic was because of the AFSCME workers of the bus transportation department and physical plant department delivering the food and doing the WiFi.”


Board members Jeanette McCullough and Oletha Jones have also opposed the move to outsource custodial work. Jones said Monday that she had yet to see the district’s actual savings from outsourcing food service.


“We receive glowing reports as to how we’re going to save a lot of money, it’s going to go back in the classroom with the students, we’re going to have a better product,” Jones said. “I’m just concerned that there’s really no way to ensure that we are going to have a better product in the long run.”


When asked by board president John Anella, Fowler couldn’t give an exact number for the districts’ savings from the Chartwells contract, saying inflation and the COVID-19 pandemic complicated reporting. 


She said the district was set to save $1.6 million and had roughly broken even at its last review at the end of 2020.


The board ultimately approved the contract in a 5 to 2 vote, with Jones and McCullough voting against it.


Contact Gemma atgdicarlo@wvpe.orgor follow her on Twitter at@gemma_dicarlo.


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Gemma DiCarlo comes to Indiana by way of Athens, Georgia. She graduated from the University of Georgia in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and certificates in New Media and Sustainability. She has radio experience from her time as associate producer of Athens News Matters, the flagship public affairs program at WUGA-FM.