LEWISTOWN - In lieu of seeing their jobs outsourced to a private company, custodial workers in the Mifflin County School District have agreed to a new four-year contract that includes salary concessions, according to Mifflin County School District Superintendent James Estep.
Under the terms of the new deal, Estep said custodians will see their pay levels decrease from $16.22 per hour to $14 per hour.
"They were making approximately $5 to $6 an hour higher than custodians working for comparable industries here in Mifflin County," Estep said. "The $14 an hour wage still puts them above the average."
Estep said the workers involved perform cleaning duties only.
Also in the agreement, Estep said some cafeteria workers agreed to concessions, including head cooks, whose pay will be reduced from $15.47 an hour to $14.50. Kitchen helpers will see a decrease from $14.57 an hour to $12. Part-time kitchen helpers will also see reductions, some from $12.39 an hour to $10.56 and others from $9.91 to $8.92 and $9.65 to $8.69 depending on when they were hired.
Estep said the district felt an obligation to look into the possibility of outsourcing the custodial services in light of reduced funding from the state.
"We all recognize that state support of public education as we've always known it has changed," he said. "We have no sense of confidence that state support will increase back to levels previously adopted. Knowing that we were faced with fiscal limitations when we started negotiations, we looked at any way to preserve dollars from one part of the system and using them for other parts, namely teaching and learning.
"We put out requests for proposals to any interested companies to provide 'custodial services only' to the district. We received proposals and learned that if we outsourced cleaning work only, we could save $1.2 million a year. In the end, with this contract, the (school) board, in order to make sure our people preserved their jobs and retirement benefits, gave up about $700,000 in potential savings through the best proposal we received. Throughout the process, the board moved with the knowledge of saving $1.2 million to saving a little over ($500,000). By doing that, our people retained their jobs and were kept in the retirement system.
"Had the board voted to outsource and our people took a job with the company, they would probably have dropped to a little over $10 an hour with very little or no retirement. Also, their medical benefits would have paled compared with what they receive now."
With the savings generated through the concessions, Estep said, "If we save ($500,000) it enables us in the next budget cycle to look into adding new teacher positions that strategically could bring some class sizes down and bring back some elective courses we've been forced to cut in the past. The kids will ultimately benefit.
"Further, the district is engaged in building projects which cost money in terms of debt service. If part of these savings can be funneled toward debt service, it reduces the amount of money needed through other revenue streams. The kids will benefit with upgraded buildings, nicer classrooms and so on."
Estep stressed the reason to pursue savings in this portion of the district's overall operation "has nothing to do with the value we place on these employees. We believe they are valuable. They provide clean classrooms and buildings, which is very important."
Estep said at the end of the day, the group was faced with two less-than-appealing choices: Accept the cuts in pay; or not accept and have the district outsource with the possibility of making even less money.
"In the end," he continued, "the better choice, in my opinion, was keeping their jobs, staying in the retirement system and keeping their benefits. The upside is people are keeping their jobs. Unfortunately, this has become reality since Governor Corbett reduced education funding by $1 billion a few years ago. We're not the only district looking at options like this in order to preserve what little funding remains for teaching and learning."
When contacted by The Sentinel on Thursday, a representative of the custodian and cafeteria workers union said the new contract is set to take effect on Monday, and the group plans to offer comment on the situation at a later date.