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Cleaning up after cuts

Part VI in a series exploring budget cuts' effects on schools

Posted: April 29, 2012 1:30 a.m.
Updated: April 29, 2012 1:30 a.m.

Custodian Brad Cooper returns students’ “thumb-wave” in the Leona H. Cox Elementary School cafeteria in Canyon Country on Wednesday. He developed the gesture as a way for the kids to quietly say hello to “Mr. Brad.”

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Dozens of smiling  6- and 7-year-olds chatter as they follow their teachers in orderly lines, weaving through the courtyard at Leona Cox Community School in Canyon Country.

Several of them spot “Mr. Brad,” the school’s day-shift custodian, and offer him their special wave — they give him a thumb’s up, and then  thumbs and bend their thumbs at the joint quickly as they shuffle off to lunch.

Brad Cooper, 54, of Canyon Country, dutifully returns their salute, thumb extended, with a smile.

“It’s something I came up with a few years back. They always want to say hi, but I don’t want to disrupt what the teachers are trying to do,” Cooper said. “Plus, it’s just so doggone cute.”

The upbeat 19-year veteran of the Sulphur Springs School District said he loves to work near children and doesn’t mind staying behind the scenes. He starts a couple of hours before the K-6 classrooms begin to fill, and a night-shift counterpart takes over from 2:30 to 10 p.m.

The custodial staff’s goal is to care for the grounds in every way imaginable so students can learn in a safe, clean environment, he said.

A change in budget
But over the last few years, he’s begun to notice more loose ends. He hears it from the teachers, he said. Dust is gathering on the shelves. Rooms aren’t vacuumed as often. The windows — well, they get to them when they can.

“The sinks are my thing,” Cooper said, “because I believe that when a kid goes to take a drink of water or to wash their hands, they need to have clean facilities.”

But even there, budget cuts have begin to show signs of neglect around the campus, and it removes the smile from the jovial Cooper’s face. He sympathizes with the teachers’ issues, but there’s only so much he can do.

“I just want people to know how much the budget cuts are hurting schools,” Cooper said. “Everyone’s feeling it.”

State cuts to public schools during the past five years have amounted to some $20 billion. The effects can definitely be seen in school structures themselves, said Carle Manley, director of maintenance and operations for the William S. Hart Union High School District.

“The governor allowed the school district to take away my mandated funds,” Manley said, referring to 3 percent of a district’s revenue previously was set aside to take care of deferred maintenance. Such work includes “your roofing, carpeting, plumbing — all the repairs to keep the schools in good working order,” as one district official put it.

In a bid to lessen the cuts’ impact in the classroom, many districts put off maintenance projects. Hart, Sulphur Springs and Saugus Union have all cut deferred maintenance from their 2011-12 budgets.

Basic needs
A trickle-down effect can be seen in equipment and grounds, Manley said. Maintenace deferred is more costly later; if you cut the budget for painting, for example, then wood rots faster.

Facilities fees help some, Manley said. When someone pays to use the school’s gym, a custodial fee is included, and the extra money helps make ends meet.

A baseline for service had to be established when the cuts first began, said Dean Mathews, director of maintenance and operations for Sulphur Springs. But it’s become more and more difficult to reach the mark set as time and staff are cut.

“We tried to set up a standard when (the state) started these reductions,” Mathews said. “We clean kindergarten and first-grade classrooms every night because those are our babies, and they’re on the floor a lot, so that’s a priority. All bathrooms are cleaned, and then we sort of work our way up.”

Due to the cuts, he has been forced to micromanage everything — down to how much time a custodian has to clean a so-called single-serving restroom — one with only a sink and toilet.

 “A single-serving bathroom, or its equivalent — they have about 10 to 15 minutes,” Mathews said. “You can’t be dillydallying around; you have to have your toilet scrubber ready to go. It’s a movin’ and a groovin’.”

Some schools, such as Canyon Springs, have the equivalent of six hours’ worth of bathroom cleaning each night.

With only one custodian at night to clean everything on campus in an eight-hour shift, floors are going to pick up a little more dirt and grime, he said.

“It’s pretty bleak,” Mathews said. Over the last two years, all employees districtwide have taken a 2- to 2.5-percent pay cut. Raises are pretty much out of the question for the next several years.

“The reality is, you just hope they don’t take days away from you,” Mathews said. “You’re just happy to stay on the books.”

Oscar Gonzalez, the direct supervisor for the grounds crews and the custodial staff for Sulphur Springs’ nine elementary schools, said the job is changing.

Cuts have changed the job from a proactive one to a reactive one, Gonzalez said. “I hear the calls all day on my radio,” Gonzalez said. “All we do all day is put out fires.”

He’s also been told a few times that his job may be eliminated.

If that happens, it would mean a custodian with less seniority would be let go, and Gonzalez’s responsibilities — daily staff supervision for about 50 employees, dealing with the district’s contracted services and any emergency situations or special events that may take place on the nine campuses under his purview — would shift to Mathews.

When the subject of washing windows comes up, Gonzalez gives a frustrated sigh. “We used to get to them once a week, and now it’s a few times a year,” he said. “We try to do all of them in the summer, when we have a little more time.”

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