The gates are padlocked, the classrooms empty, and the windows sheathed in white plastic to keep the bad air inside. The only signs of life these days at P.S. 219, Kennedy-King Elementary School, on Clarkson Avenue in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, are the buzzing air monitors mounted at the entrance doors and an old motel-style billboard out front that still reads: “Safe School, Healthy Students Seminar, Sat. Feb. 28, 9 a.m.-2:30.”
That class was held about a week before a contractor began ripping up an old gym floor in the school last month. And while it’s not known whether those in charge of maintaining the four-story red brick building attended the seminar, you could make a strong argument that they should have. After the floor replacement work began, some school staffers noticed white flakes atop hunks of busted-up concrete being hauled through the building. A gym teacher working in an adjacent area saw white dust coming through the vent. He was told not to worry.
Four days after the work was begun, however, school officials learned that the project had unwittingly unleashed asbestos dust on lower floors, exposing students and staff to the airborne carcinogen. On Thursday, March 11, the school was hastily ordered evacuated. It has been shut ever since and asbestos abatement workers at the site estimated that the cleanup may take another three weeks.
Just how the floor renovation was allowed to commence without an analysis of the old flooring is a question now being examined by the city’s special schools investigator, Richard Condon. “There was a breakdown in the process, clearly,” Marty Oestreicher, who heads school support services for the Department of Education, told the Voice.
But while Oestreicher and other school officials insist the floor fiasco is a separate unrelated event, it has also become a prime exhibit in the ongoing debate about whether or not the maintenance of city schools is best served by private, for-profit contractors, or traditional unionized, civil-servant custodians.
Since last summer, P.S. 219 has been under the care of Temco Service Industries, one of two private facilities-management companies hired by the department to replace school custodians. School officials have complained that custodians are constricted by work rules that bar them from carrying out more than basic repair tasks and prevent them from tackling big jobs, like painting over a certain height, or replacing large sections of broken tiles. And because of union due-process rules, officials say, poor-performing custodians can’t be fired without a protracted struggle.
To get around those hurdles, the board has turned to private contractors. Currently, Temco and another for-profit firm, Johnson Controls, have contracts to manage some 200 city schools, and officials are seeking bids to place two entire districts in Queens and Brooklyn under private contractors. Such a move will save money in the long run, officials say, and lead to better-maintained schools.
But custodians say that school officials have so far spent more money, not less, as much as $51 million extra over a three-year period. The added funds, the custodians say, are the reason contractors handle extra tasks. In addition, the union argues, the switch to for-profit companies potentially puts both kids and staff at risk. And, they maintain, if one of their own had been on the job at P.S. 219 when the floor project had been broached, for instance, the underlying asbestos would have been spotted right away.
“If they are going to drill through a floor, they are obligated to do a sample. Obviously this wasn’t done,” said Robert Troeller, president of Local 891 of the Operating Engineers, which represents the school’s licensed custodians. “If a custodian engineer was there on site, he would have seen it,” argued Troeller. “We’re trained in asbestos containment. We know what it looks like and how to handle it.”
Oestreicher declined to talk about who might have dropped the ball in the P.S. 219 case, citing the investigation. But while central school officials have had no trouble finding faults with the unionized custodians in recent years, they insisted that the blame for the debacle shouldn’t be attributed to their private contractor. “This had absolutely nothing to do with Temco,” said Oestreicher. “They were not responsible for bringing in the [flooring] contractor; they were not supposed to be overseeing the work. They were only responsible to make sure the guy was there, and not elsewhere in the building.”
The shutdown of P.S. 219 was just one of the counts raised against the idea of school maintenance privatization contracts at a City Council hearing last week on the issue. The 219 incident, said councilmembers Robert Jackson and Joseph Addabbo in a joint statement, “appears emblematic of the weaknesses associated with the outsourcing of custodial services.” Councilmembers also asked education officials whether they had carried out a cost-benefit analysis of the switch, one they would be obligated to conduct under city rules but which is not mandated by state educationlaw governing the department.
Schools deputy chancellor Kathleen Grimm responded that “it was not useful to compare” costs of the private contractors to the custodians because the contractors perform more tasks.
The unspoken subtext in the debate is the long string of exposés about custodial abuse that date back more than a decade: custodians who used school-purchased four-wheel-drive vehicles for their own use; who hired relatives; who couldn’t account for chunks of their budget. But Troeller, who became union president last summer, said such abuses are in the past. Nepotism and expensive autos have been prohibited, he said. Now custodians have an added incentive to do a good job because they are rated by principals, ratings which determine whether a custodian is eligible to transfer to larger, better-paying posts at other schools. “We’re there, on the premises, as the owner’s agent,” says Troeller. “The outside contractors are basically absentee landlords.”
Nor do all of the new outside firms come with clean hands, Troeller asserted. Johnson Controls has subcontracted a major portion of its work in the city’s schools to a Westchester-based firm named Colin Service Systems, which paid a $1 million fine to federal immigration authorities in 1996—the largest fine ever at that time—for knowingly hiring illegal aliens. Education department officials saidthey were looking into the matter.