Wake County teachers, parents and students could have to do more to keep classrooms clean if the school system decides to reduce custodial services to save money.
To help close a $17.5 million budget gap, Wake County school administrators have recommended cleaning schools one fewer day a week, a move that would save $3.6 million. Vacuuming and sweeping, which typically take place after school, could be reduced from three days a week to twice a week.
The potential change is drawing concerns from some parents and teachers who say it could affect health conditions and put an extra burden on already busy teachers.
“It would be terrible,” said Eveline Muela, who teaches English as a second language at Hodge Road Elementary School in Knightdale. “We need them to be vacuuming every day with all the little kids around.”
The proposal would reduce school cleanings in Wake County to a level not seen since the aftermath of the recession.
In 2011, Wake cut 72 full-time custodial positions and reduced vacuuming and sweeping in schools from five days a week to two days a week. In 2012, Wake found enough money to bring back one of the three lost days of cleaning.
“Although they’re healthy, (schools) are not where they should be because of the cuts we’ve made,” said Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent for facilities. “We made some ground back by adding the extra day of cleaning, but we’ll lose it again.”
The reduced cleanings have led to more Wake teachers vacuuming their classrooms, a situation that could increase if further cuts are made.
“As a parent, I find it absolutely appalling that they’re cutting it even more,” said Donna Kuni, PTA president of Durant Road Elementary School in North Raleigh and a former Wake teacher. “It’s falling more on the teachers to clean their classrooms and that isn’t fair.
“They’re busy with assessing and teaching our kids, and this is just one more thing that you’re putting on top of them.”
Nancy Tan, a North Raleigh parent, said she often sees teachers vacuuming their rooms after students go home for the day.
“Going to two days a week is a terrible idea,” Tan said. “If anything, they should be doing more. We’re definitely opposed to less cleaning.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Durham schools are vacuumed and swept every weekday.
The Wake school board had discussed adding $7.3 million to this year’s budget to restore daily cleanings. But that’s not on the table after the Wake County Board of Commissioners gave $11.8 million less than what the school board requested.
The budget gap widened further because the state legislature approved bigger-than-expected teacher pay raises, which changed how much Wake will pay teachers in supplements. Wake is also getting less state money per student than in 2008.
School officials presented a lengthy list of recommended cuts last week, including changing school thermometer settings, reducing money for instructional supplies and providing fewer teachers to schools.
But school board Chairman Tom Benton said the recommendation that has gotten the most feedback has been the cut on custodial services. The board will discuss the cuts Tuesday and is scheduled to approve them Aug. 16.
If the cleaning cut is approved, Desormeaux said Wake wouldn’t lay off any school custodians but would instead reduce the amount paid to cleaning companies. Wake contracts with cleaning companies to work at 117 of its 175 schools.
Desormeaux said school custodians will still clean the floor if there’s a spill or if a student throws up. But the time-consuming jobs of vacuuming and sweeping would occur less often.
The potential cuts would put more stress on custodians. Delmi Umana, the head custodian at Hodge Road Elementary, already has her hands full opening the school at 6 a.m. and tending to all the jobs she’s called to do before she leaves at 3 p.m.
“If you keep the building dirty, it’s not healthy for the kids,” Umana said. “You have to make sure the building is clean for them.”
Desormeaux said less frequent cleanings could result in the carpets wearing out quicker and less positive feelings about the schools.
“We would like our schools to be cleaner,” Desormeaux said. “If the schools are clean, our students and staff are proud of the school and take better care of the school.”
‘An old budget trick’
But state Rep. Paul Stam calls it “absurd” that the school district is turning to things such as reducing custodial services to cut money from a $1.5 billion operating budget.
“This is an old budget trick,” said Stam, an Apex Republican. “The purpose of this kind of suggestion is to irritate hundreds of thousands of parents so that they will demand a tax increase.”
Benton said that with 94 percent of the school district’s funding going directly into schools, there’s not much room to find cuts.
“We don’t have any extra money to add into this without taking it out from somewhere else,” Benton said. “It’s not like in the past when we had a fairly significant savings to dip into.”