Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Metro Nashville schools to target bus drivers, janitors in budget cuts

Metro Nashville schools to target bus drivers, janitors in budget cuts

Low-paid school workers say they're bearing all the pain

By Jaime Sarrio • THE TENNESSEAN • March 6, 2010

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Metro Schools wants to contract custodial and landscaping services with a private company, cut hours for bus drivers and eliminate 24 central office positions in an effort to save money and fund other projects next school year.

The plans, released Friday in the district's 2010-11 budget, would affect 656 custodians and groundskeepers and about 815 bus drivers and monitors. The school board, mayor and Metro Council will have to approve the budget before it is final.

Mayor Karl Dean will submit his version to the council by May 1.

Director of Schools Jesse Register said the district will save on benefits by outsourcing the custodial jobs, and existing employees will be given hiring preference once the contractor is selected. The shift to a private provider may result in higher staffing and cleaner schools, he said.

"It is a better, more efficient way of doing business, and we should expect a better result," he said.

The district is budgeting $24 million to hire a contractor and will save an estimated
$29 million by eliminating the jobs, for a net savings of $5 million.

Union leaders from SEIU Local 205, which represents Nashville's custodians and groundskeepers, said privatization elsewhere has led to lower wages for workers and weaker benefits.

Andrew Linear, a custodian at Overton High School who has been with the district for 12 years, said he takes some comfort in the promise that a contractor would hire him next year, but worries about his benefits.

"Everyone needs a job. If push comes to shove, you don't have no choice," he said. "I prefer to see it stay as it is, but my main concern is insurance. It might not be comparable with what we have."

Bus drivers lose an hour

Another big savings will come from cutting the pay for the district's bus drivers and monitors. These employees are paid for eight hours of work a day, but usually log less than seven, according to school officials. By reducing their pay one hour a day, a total of six fewer paid days a year, the district will save $2.5 million.

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But bus drivers say they and other low-wage workers are unfairly taking the brunt of budget cuts while the district protects upper-level positions. District officials said they cut teaching positions last year and did not want to make more trims that would affect instruction. Cutting 24 mostly clerical central office positions, a move proposed in the budget, will save $1.5 million.

Mary Eady, a Metro school bus driver and president of Steelworkers Local 9426, said the change would make drivers ineligible for overtime wages paid for field trips and after-school programs. She and other drivers also dispute the claim they only work seven hours.

"It's going to financially affect all of us," said Eady, who has 35 years of
experience. "We don't get overtime if it's not 40 hours, and they failed to mention that to the public."

The union estimates this cut will result in a 12.5 percent salary reduction for bus drivers, whose average is $24,800, according to the district.

Budget is bigger

Despite the cuts, the district is asking for more money. Last year's budget was $620.8 million, and at least a portion of that was funded through savings. This year, the district is seeking $633.3 million and will not be able to dip into savings because the fund balance is getting low.

Some of the new dollars will pay for additional grade levels at nontraditional
schools, like Big Picture and Diploma Plus high schools.

About $600,000 is also marked for creating a virtual high school, where students can take advanced courses or make up credit hours online with the leadership of a Metro teacher. Details of the school, which will launch in the fall, are still in the works.

The amount also would fund a transition program for students released from jail and heading back into public school.

Contact Jaime Sarrio at 615-726-5964 or

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