Belding janitorial workers host ice cream social to rally for support

By Cory Smith • Last Updated 5:38 pm on Thursday, April 05, 2012

10-year-old Woodview Elementary fifth grader Stetson Rice receives an ice cream cone from Belding Area Schools custodial worker Larry Bush during an ice cream social at Central Riverside Park in Belding Wednesday. At top right, janitorial workers handed out pins seeking support from the community to protest the possible privatization of the janitorial staff. — Daily News/Cory Smith

BELDING — As Belding Area Schools janitorial workers handed out ice cream cones to children and parents Wednesday evening at Central Riverside Park, they did so with laughter and smiles.

But behind those smiles was the realization that the opportunity to laugh and interact with students they see on a daily basis may be coming to an end.

On April 16 members of the Belding Area Schools Board of Education are expected to vote on a decision to privatize the district’s janitorial staff. The decision, if approved, is expected to save the district $300,000 annually.

It will also cost nine janitorial workers their jobs.

Spreading awareness

During the ice cream social, janitorial workers like David Enbody, who works at Belding High School, handed out flyers, buttons and other pamphlets to spread awareness to the public and possibly save their jobs.

“We held this ice cream social to get the kids down here with their parents, to spend some time with them, let them know what’s going on and try to get some people to come to the upcoming board meeting,” Enbody said. “We just want to get the word out there. We want the public to give their opinion.”

10-year-old Woodview Elementary fifth grader Stetson Rice cuts out his own design for a button to wear in support of the current janitorial staff at Belding Area Schools during an ice cream social at Central Riverside Park in Belding Wednesday. — Daily News/Cory Smith

Enbody said one of his main concerns is that many people in the community, many of them parents of students, are unaware a change in janitorial workers could be coming soon.

“There is talk of getting rid of us and having a private company come in,” he said. “A lot of people don’t even realize that’s an issue right now. (The board) is doing it to save money.”

Enbody said he realizes times are tough and that cuts have to be made, but said the issue of cutting janitorial workers is one that involves more than money.

“Our hope is that the board sees that this is more than just a money issue,” he said. “We do more than just cleaning around here. We help out with all of the different activities. We come in and help out outside of our normal hours. I get calls at my house all the time from parents whose students have forgotten things in their lockers. There’s just so much more that we do that isn’t part of our job.”

Bids for services under review

If privatization is approved by members of the school board, the nine remaining janitorial positions will be cut as of June 30. Bids for the janitorial staff are currently being accepted and reviewed by the school board and the current staff has submitted a bid of their own.

Michigan Education Association (MEA) Uniserv Director Nancy Valenta, who represents the janitorial employees in Belding, said the value of the current custodians compared to privatized workers cannot be measured.

“We have custodians here that, combined, have more than 128 years of experience in the district,” she said. “Essentially what will happen if their jobs are outsourced to a private company is they will be fired. We’re trying to prevent that from happening.”

A volunteer stamps together a button during an ice cream social at Central Riverside Park in Belding Wednesday in support of the current Belding Area Schools janitorial staff. — Daily News/Cory Smith

Valenta said as valued members of the community, more thought should be put into the entire process before a final decision is made about the future of the janitorial workers.

“These folks live in the community, they are taxpayers here, their kids go to school here, their grandchildren went to school here, they themselves probably, a large number of them, went to school here (in Belding),” she said. “They care about the community and would like to continue to work for the school district in the capacity that they are.”

Cuts a result of decisions in Lansing

Superintendent Leslie Mount said in an email that she believes people should address their concerns to representatives in Lansing, as the cuts being made are a result of budgetary issues related to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget reform.

“Unfortunately, the funding we get from Lansing is forcing us to do many things we would rather not,” she said. “Folks should express their displeasure with any cut to our representatives in Lansing. If they would simply stick to the promise of Proposal A, this would be unnecessary.”

In his first year in office, Gov. Rick Snyder cut K-12 spending by $1 billion. His latest proposal for the fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1, is expected to restore almost a third of that amount.

According to Mount, the cuts are creating a large burden on not just Belding, but schools all across the state.

“We are anticipating having to cut $1.5 to $2 million to balance our budget,” she said. “Unfortunately, we will need to make cuts beyond this. We are projecting that we won’t have enough fund equity to cover status quo for next year. Every school around us is in the same boat.”

Decisions in best interest of the student

When making cuts to the school’s budget, Mount said the difficult decisions must reflect the best interest of the students.

Janitorial workers handed out pins seeking support from the community to protest the possible privatization of the janitorial staff. — Daily News/Cory Smith

“Our job is to protect the education of our children,” she said. “Our budget decisions are hard, but must reflect that. This keeps as many taxpayer dollars going to classrooms as possible. We have cut in every area.”

On the issue of cutting janitorial workers, Mount said no options are good, but “some cuts would cost us more in loss of students than we can afford.

“It is true that we now have 8.5 jobs that would be cut, but cutting busing or something similar would harm kids and mean we would be cutting more than 8.5 jobs,” she said. “None of the options are good, but Lansing has put us here and we must do our best even when it is hard.”

Belding resident Josh Havey, a father of three kids, all in the Belding School System, said outsourcing employees should be the last resort.

“I think it’s important that everyone comes out and supports the custodians,” he said. “Outsourcing (of jobs) is never good. You want to try to build your community, not take jobs away. A lot of the current custodians were around when I was in school 12 years ago, so it’s nice knowing who your kids are around, not just the teachers, but everyone who is in the building.”

Valenta said she hopes the school board members will give the issue more thought and open the discussion to the public before a decision is made.

“I would hope that at least the school board has an opportunity to publicly discuss this because up to this point they have not publicly discussed where they are at on this idea and whether or not they are supportive of it,” she said. “Hopefully they will at least publicly discuss it and hopefully they will hear from members of the public, because I don’t think there has been much opportunity for that.”

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