This morning, I read an article published by Kate Dubinski entitled "Thames Valley school board laying off 16 custodians". This issue was not a surprise to me: I've been writing to the board about it throughout the summer.
I believe in putting children first - in spending that results in direct and positive impacts on students in our classrooms. It follows that I would pay close attention to budgeting and programming in the board.
As a member of the public, I've routinely read the TVDSB budget and I provide input through the processes available. This is something great to know about your trustee candidate, isn't it? I'm already paying attention to how TVDSB operates and asking questions to inform myself as an invested community member.
This year, one of the pieces I've been very concerned about is the reduction in custodial staff. When I have questions and concerns, I look for answers. As a member of the public, I wrote to our school board trustees on July 20, July 27, and August 12 to inquire about the reduction in front-line custodial services.
From my July 20 letter to the school board trustees who were most closely associated with the budget process:
My latest question is related to the allocation of custodial staffing to schools in TVDSB. Under ordinary circumstances, a reduction in this staffing would concern me as I am aware of the limitations on those staff to complete the expected work as it stands. With the understanding that Covid is not behind us, reducing staff responsible for the cleanliness of our schools is concerning to me.
I'd also appreciate clarification on the rationale to decrease custodial staffing, independent of ISP/SSF funding. Trends in custodial staffing overall and custodial staffing allocation would be one indication. However, it is difficult to understand how our student population is growing, we are building new schools, and yet we are reducing custodial staffing to support those students in our buildings. How is this good for students?
The response I received, provided by staff, was that there had been unused funds that were able to be applied to provide for the additional positions and that the funding no longer existed. On July 27, I wrote this in response:
I understand that there are many needs that must be considered by the board when developing and passing the budget. However, is the only solution really to remove front-line custodial staff or reduce direct services to students? You'll recall that 24 FTE Educational Assistants were also cut from the budget, despite additional COVID funding from the ministry intended to address learning recovery.
How are we prioritizing direct, positive impacts on students in the budget? Are there no other efficiencies to be found?
I was still concerned because, as I had written on July 20, the number of students is increasing and we have more school space to care for. It did not make sense how TVDSB could be justifying the reduction of this staff.
A superintendent shared that custodial staff are allocated on a square-footage basis and each year custodial numbers are adjusted based on the square footage changes to school sites (portables/construction). The reply also indicated that his department is "confident that our team will continue to deliver great supports across our 163 schools for our students"
This didn't quite make sense to me. I know that some schools have increased in square footage and that their allocation has NOT changed. So I asked the following question:
When “square footage basis” is mentioned, it sounds like a formula is being used. I am confused about how that formula must work given what I know about schools and staff at this time. Could the formula be shared so that any confusion can be cleared up? I imagine this would be in the public domain.
What I think I have been hearing in staff replies to my questions is this: TVDSB used some unspent board money on custodial staff last year because we needed them. The money used for that (unrelated to Covid relief funding) was used up so we couldn't pay to have those custodians anymore. Happy coincidence, we also don't need those custodians anymore because, even though we have more students and more schools (and Covid on the rise again), the custodial staff, even though they are reduced in number, are totally capable of doing all of the work needed, including the additional tasks that are still expected. And, according to the article, the priority is on improving ventilation.
I have not yet received a reply to that email from August 13 (sent 10 days ago). I do look forward to receiving it so that any confusion about custodial allocation can be cleared up and, once I receive it, I will follow up here.
Even if those numbers do make sense, it still doesn't answer the question of how cleaning protocols for surfaces, recommended by the government, will be possible with staffing being provided on a square-footage basis without an adjustment for the increased need for cleaning in our current climate. Of course budget dollars are not infinite and decisions must be made about how to best allocate dollars. That classrooms are clean and safe is a basic expectation. So again, I ask: How is this good for students?
If this is the kind of effort I put in to get answers about one line of a budget document as a member of the public, imagine what I will do for the community as a trustee.
Update: I received a response from staff through trustees on August 29. My response letter highlights a flaw in the explanation staff gave that, after additions to staffing to support higher levels of cleaning for Covid, staffing numbers have now returned to their pre-Covid numbers.
I've made all trustees aware of the issues with reducing custodial staff time by 128 hours/day. There will be a revised budget coming before the board soon. I hope that the information I have provided is enough for trustees to ask more questions about allocating staff in this area. We need our schools to be cleaned well each day and that's pretty difficult with a larger list of duties, more space to clean, and less time in which to do it. It's just math.