Features

A Test for Privatization

Springfield’s Schools Get a Clean Slate
David Shea

David Shea says privatization of school-cleaning work is gaining acceptance in a growing number of communities as a way to reduce costs and improve quality.

A five-year contract awarded to a Danvers-based company to clean Springfield’s schools — the largest such undertaking in New England — provides an effective, comprehensive test of privatization of municipal services. There are potential benefits to such outsourcing, including cost savings, but the president of the Springfield Finance Control Board says money can’t be the only consideration.

They’re calling it ‘the remediation.’

That’s the term Springfield school officials, Springfield Finance Control Board members, and those with the company hired to do the work are using to describe a massive clean-up/catch-up effort involving the city’s school buildings.

It started on July 1 and it’s still in progress, said David Shea, president of the Danvers-based company S.J. Services and its school division, EduClean, which recently opened a location in Springfield. The work has been exhaustive and quite revealing, he explained, referring to years of accumulated grime — and wax buildup.

“One custodian estimated that we were taking off 50 coats of wax,” Shea said in reference to a wooden floor in one of the elementary schools. “They wouldn’t strip the wax off, they would just clean the floor and put on another coat. It’s not that they didn’t want to take the old wax off, they just never had time.”

The remediation, now down to some last details, is the first phase of what amounts to a comprehensive test of privatization — at least as it pertains to night-time cleaning of school buildings — in Springfield and perhaps elsewhere.

The step to privatize much of the school cleaning duties is one of several being taken or considered by the Springfield Finance Control Board to help balance the city’s books and provide long-term economic stability for the community The five-year contract is expected to save the city about $9 million, according to Patrick Sullivan, Director of Parks, Buildings & Recreation Management.

But cost savings are only part of the privatization equation, said Finance Control Board President Phil Puccia. He told BusinessWest that there are several other factors to consider, including overall quality of service and effective allocation of funds.

“Privatization is not a panacea,” he explained, adding that the control board prefers mixing privately contracted work with municipal supervision. “We pick our spots … we’ll do it when it makes sense and when the city benefits.”

Nighttime school cleaning apparently meets those criteria, as does school cafeteria work, he explained. “A school system’s principle function is to educate kids, not feed them,” he explained of the latter contract, awarded this past summer. “A company like Sodexho (the firm hired) can do that far better, and more efficiently, then we can.”

The city has also looked at outsourcing trash pick-up, but saw no cost benefit, said Puccia, and has privatized some of the street-sweeping duties, so far with mixed reviews. “We haven’t seen all the results we’re looking for; that’s still a work in progress.”

From what’s he’s seen thus far, the school-cleaning outsourcing initiative has provided what the city is looking for, said Puccia, meaning results — on the bottom line and in the classrooms.

Shea told BusinessWest that EduClean, now the largest school-cleaning company in the state and probably New England, has more than 100 schools and 20 million square feet of floor space in its portfolio. He said more communities are starting to see the light — literally as well as figuratively — when it comes to privatizing school cleaning, and hopes the current project will help create more believers. Meanwhile, he expects the contract with the city will eventually help his company expand its presence in the Pioneer Valley, not only with school projects but with commercial and residential cleaning work as well.

But for now, his focus is clearly on the Springfield schools and giving them and the city a clean slate.

Waxing Nostalgic

On July 1, Shea took up work-week residence at the Hilton Garden Inn on Springfield’s riverfront. He did so to keep a close eye on what is considered to be the largest school-cleaning privatization effort in New England.

And as a result, he knows there will be many eyes on him. “This is an important contract for our company and for the city of Springfield.”

S.J. Services, now 26 years old, was started by Shea’s brother, Shawn. It was focused first on residential cleaning and eventually expanded to the commercial sector. About 15 years ago, it expanded its reach to school and municipal buildings and has been steadily building that portion of the portfolio.

School cleaning is a niche, he explained, and not as easy, at least from a business perspective, as it might look.

“A school is a lot different than an R&D building on Route 128,” he explained, noting that with most office buildings, those bidding to do work can simply add up the square footage and multiply by a certain amount. “Schools have classrooms, pools, locker rooms … you can’t just sit at a computer and punch out a dollar amount.

“We spend a lot of time learning about schools and how to handle them efficiently,” he continued, adding that the work has paid off, with the company adding a number of communities and individual state colleges and community colleges to its client list.

The opportunity to add Springfield to the list came early this spring, when, after a lengthy period of study, review of options, and negotiations with the school custodians’ union, the control board opted to privatize a large part of the work being done.

Cost-savings was part of the motivation, said Puccia, but there was more to it.

“There was a general understanding that the buildings were not as clean as they should be; they were not being maintained,” he said. “That pushed us into a competitive outsourcing mode.

“This was a decision that we grew into over time,” he continued. “When we looked at how much money we were spending in payroll and other expenses to maintain the school buildings in particular, and when we looked at the size of the workforce, it didn’t match up with the level of service we were seeing. We really felt that we should be getting a bigger bang for the buck we were spending on 200 to 250 custodians plus supplies and everything else.”

Negotiations with the union did not yield the changes in the contract requested to achieve desired flexibility, Puccia explained, adding that while the union did move slightly in the control board’s direction, it didn’t move far enough.

This led to the decision to privatize part of the school-cleaning work, a step that led to about 110 layoffs, with some of those individuals among the 40 people placed in newly created positions involving grounds and maintenance work.

A request for proposals for the school-cleaning work, including the remediation, or deep-cleaning, project, was issued in the spring, said Shea, noting that his was one of four companies that submitted bids. Other firms took a look, he said — there were bus tours of the schools given to prospective bidders — “but they decided they just didn’t want to take it on.”

A Floor of a Different Color

As work commenced on the deep cleaning, Shea could clearly understand why.

He said the project involved work that hadn’t been done in years, perhaps decades. Rest rooms were often covered with grime and graffiti, wax had built up in corners and behind equipment, and the floors … well, they were another story.

After stripping off dozens of layers of wax, EduClean workers discovered that some floors were a different shade than those walking over them would be led to believe. “There was one floor everyone thought was brown,” he explained. “It was really white; we left a small section the way it was for a few days so everyone could see the difference.”

Shea intends to continue showing things are different now that the remediation is mostly over and the company is doing largely day-to-day cleaning. He said teachers, students, and administrators will notice improvement — while the school system is saving money.

When asked why privatization of school-cleaning work has been effective in many communities and will likely yield similar results in Springfield, Shea said there are many factors, ranging from technology, to work patterns, to the simple fact that his employees won’t lose time to moving boxes of supplies.

Shea told BusinessWest that he has no doubts that the former city employees tasked with cleaning the city’s schools were working hard; they were not, however, working effectively, at least from his judgment gained from years of cleaning schools.

As one example, he pointed to the fact that most municipal school custodians were (are) full-time workers, and that studies show that such individuals are considerably less productive after four or five hours of work. EduClean hires primarily part-time employees working five-hour shifts, meaning that there is more productivity for the dollars being spent.

Technology also plays a role, said Shea, noting that as a large, private company, S.J. Services invests heavily in the latest equipment, which enables workers to do more in less time. The company also focuses on what is known as ‘green,’ or environmentally safe cleaning products and methods, he explained, adding that these create a better learning environment that reduces absenteeism while improving productivity.

Still another part of the equation is accountability, said Shea, adding that there is more now than before, because the company makes it known what it expects from each worker, and gets it.

But part of the accountability factor is having municipal supervision of the work being handled by EduClean, said Puccia, who told BusinessWest that this is a key element in determining whether any privatization effort will ultimately work.

“The question you have to ask and answer is, do you have the management talent and skill to supervise a sophisticated outside company?” he said. “That, to me, is the big challenge. And will you have the skill sets to draft a contract that really holds the private company’s feet to the fire and holds them accountable for the work they promised they’d deliver in the bid.”

Thus far, these elements appear to be in place with regard to the school-cleaning contract, he continued, adding, again, that the bottom line isn’t merely the bottom line.

“If we save money on the deal, that’s great,” he said. “But you need to have the buildings sufficiently clean so kids can learn and teachers can be happy that they’re working in them.”

Sweeping Statement

As he wrapped up his interview with BusinessWest in a classroom at Van Sickle Middle School, Shea stooped to pick up a piece of trash from the floor by the teacher’s desk.

“It’s second nature,” he said, adding that he will be staying at the Hilton Gardens until he what he called “a comfort level” is achieved with the Springfield project. By that, he meant that he would stay in Springfield until was sure this initiative is running like clockwork. He thinks he’s just about there.

In the meantime, he’s been making some introductions to community and business leaders, with the expectation that this contract could eventually lead to a larger base of business here.

That will come later, though. For now, he focused on that wax build-up and making it history.v

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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