The Hainesport Education Association in Burlington County knows firsthand that community support is the key to saving the jobs of educational support professionals. A six-month campaign to keep the Hainesport Board of Education from firing their six custodians and replacing them with a for-profit cleaning service ended in victory last February when the board voted 6-3 to keep their own staff.
HEA’s outreach to parents and the community was key to the board’s decision.
“The October board meeting was a big one,” said HEA President Cheryl Rothkopf. “The parents, and even some residents with no children in the schools, really came out for our custodians that night.”
In fact, they came out to support the custodians again and again.
That didn’t happen by accident.
As soon as first-year local president Rothkopf received a letter from the board about its consideration of privatization, she called her UniServ field office for advice and assistance. NJEA UniServ consultant Patrick Manahan worked with Rothkopf to develop a strategy to build support for the custodians, but he credits Rothkopf’s leadership for making the real difference.
“For a first-year president to step up the way she did is spectacular,” Manahan said. “Cheryl did an outstanding job reaching out to parents.”
Before reaching out to the community, HEA custodians assessed their contributions to the school and the broader community. Since four of the six were Hainesport homeowners, they calculated their contribution to the local tax base. They enumerated the various community activities in which they participated to demonstrate their personal investment in Hainesport. They listed their specialized trainings and certifications that added value to their role as highly trained staff in the district.
The information was tabulated and integrated into a flier that HEA members of every job description distributed at the district’s two back to school nights and at a community day in Hainesport.
HEA traditionally sets up a greeting table at back to school night at which, among other activities and giveaways, they highlight new teachers. This year, they also highlighted the custodians with a poster that detailed all the services they provided to the district, going as far to indicate the square footage of the building for which each custodian was responsible.
Custodians had faced the additional challenge over the last several years of keeping the building clean and orderly in the midst of construction, asbestos remediation, a new roof, and other projects.
HEA used the community day as an opportunity to gather contact information for potential supporters. These supporters later received a stamped, addressed postcard to mail to the board of education with a message of support for the custodians.
The mailing also included a petition with 10 blanks asking supporters to gather signatures and contact information for more allies. The petitions were to be returned to HEA, which added to the association’s cadre of community supporters.
Board meetings and coffee klatching
Staff and community packed the October board meeting. They questioned the wisdom of the privatization of the custodians and were doubtful that there would be substantial savings.
“We were able to identify residents who were pro-education and parents who would speak up against subcontracting,” Manahan said.”
At its January meeting, the board hosted a community discussion on privatization. Twenty-four parents addressed the board in opposition to the plan to fire the custodians.
In the midst of the campaign, HEA held two “coffee klatch” meetings in residents’ homes. The meetings were an opportunity to share information and take residents’ concerns into consideration.
“We’re a family”
“Some members of the board of education just wanted to look at the numbers, but we put a face on those numbers,” Manahan said.
Custodian and HEA member Glenwood Brown addressed the board at several meetings. At the February meeting, he told the board, “If you bring private people in here it’s not going to be the same school, because we’re a family. You are going to be breaking up our family.”
But the association didn’t ignore financial considerations. In addition to community outreach the association examined the bid specifications and the district’s earlier experiences with subcontracting to raise substantial questions about the value of privatization. The association used NJEA’s expertise as well as that of experts in the community.
One community member pointed out that when the district had subcontracted its transportation services, costs increased by $100,000. The board countered that scheduling, not costs, were the primary motivation for the privatization of its buses.
While the custodians’ jobs were saved this year, the battle is not over. Board members indicated that it may consider privatization in the future.
Like most districts in the state, Hainesport moved its school elections to November. This year, due to various circumstances, five of the board’s seven seats will be up for election. The outcome of this fall’s elections may determine the future of privatization in Hainesport.