Not every Metro Council member agrees with the school board’s decision to outsource custodians and groundskeepers, but it appears there may be little they can do about it.
After a marathon public hearing in which custodians decried the school board’s 5-4 vote to privatize its custodial services, the council voted 29-1, with eight abstentions, to pass Mayor Karl Dean’s $1.52 billion budget on second reading.
The vote tally did not reflect the direct sentiments of the council, but had the body failed to sign off on the budget on second reading, Dean’s budget would have passed on default, giving the council no opportunity to tweak it in any way before it’s up for third and final reading June 15.
“We need to hear [the school board] out,” Budget and Finance Committee Chair Ronnie Steine told his colleagues. “But if we don’t move this forward tonight, we are closing the door on all options.”
Feeling hand-cuffed, some council members voted for the budget even though they expressed opposition to the board’s move to outsource custodians. Eight other council opponents decided to abstain from voting, a move they collaborated on to send a message to Register and the board.
It all sets up what should be quite a showdown when the board and Register convene before the council Thursday evening for the Metro schools budget hearing.
Still, any message sent to Metro Nashville Public Schools on Thursday could be more symbolic than anything else. According to the Metro Charter, the council votes on the level of funding the school district receives –– in this case, $633.3 million. The board then decides how those dollars are appropriated, and the board just last week tapped Cleveland, Ohio-based GCA Services Group to carry out its custodial services. Even if the council budgeted additional funds to the school district, there would be no assurance on how those dollars would be spent.
“This council doesn’t have the empowerment as I see it to do a single thing,” said Metro Councilman Robert Duvall, who opposes outsourcing. “I don’t know how we can change that.”
Some strange council bedfellows have formed in opposition to outsourcing, a decision Register has said would protect the jobs of teachers. Council opponents include conservatives like Duvall, Michael Craddock and Eric Crafton; stalwart Democrats such as Bo Mitchell and Kristine LaLonde; and the council’s entire black caucus.
“Three of us are the most conservative members of this body,” said Craddock, who called the choice to outsource sinful. “And we’re fighting for the labor unions. Can you imagine that? When I go home, my family doesn’t even know who I am because I’m a brother to the SEIU and the steelworkers.”
Not all Nashvillians who weighed in on Dean’s budget last night had negative things to say. Some applauded the mayor’s decision to not raise property taxes. Others made appeals for the council to sign off on a budget that would protect most core Metro services. Several said they support Dean’s decision to fund schools at the level requested by Register and the board.
But words of praise were drowned out by the passionate pleas of custodians, bus drivers and groundskeepers. Under the proposed budget, bus drivers would lose an hour’s work a day, and custodians would have to pay 35 percent of their medical costs With their current plan, custodians only have to pay 25 percent of costs.
“We take pride in our work,” said Eddie Smith a longtime custodian at a Metro elementary school. “A lot of times I go to work sick and don’t feel well, but I take pride because someone is depending on me. All of custodians and groundskeepers, we need our jobs. We really need our jobs.”
Smith then called for other custodians in attendance to join with him, and they did: “We really need our jobs.”