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School budgets minus janitors = bloody mess

Suzanna Caldwell
Toxic high schoolers Aaron Jansen illustration

Anytime there's an accident involving blood, vomit or feces, Pen Miller is there. Spend a few minutes with her, and Miller will go through the laundry list of things she has to cleans up regularly as a West High School custodian of almost 28 years. A surprise bloody nose? Upset stomach ending up on the floor? Students smearing crap on the walls? Miller is West High’s first line of defense.

“We handle everything,” Miller said. “We're not crying for any help or anything. We do what we have to do.”

She can easily recount a series of horror stories, most of which involve teenagers behaving badly with their own bodily fluids, sometimes accidentally, oftentimes on purpose. Miller, 61, is in charge of handling “gross and unpredictable” messes.

“It took a lot to stomach,” she said. “But I got used to having it around.”

But Miller is one of a slew of support staff being considered for layoffs and cuts by the Anchorage School District next year. The district, facing a looming $25 million deficit is looking to reduce costs for the 2013-24 school year, starting with consolidation of resources at the central office and the layoff of dozens of support staffers including janitors, teaching assistants and tutors.

While much the focus has been on the expected loss of some 30 counselors, janitors are targeted, too. They’re the behind-the-scenes employees who make sure schools run smoothly for students and staff in Alaska's largest city.

With big changes expected, Miller is worried about the health risk nasty incidents can pose to students. With only one custodian expected to remain on duty after the layoffs -- someone with numerous other responsibilities -- Miller wonders who will clean up after the kids?

“If we do nothing at all, can you imagine what it could be? If I'm not here, who's going to clean? The nurses, the superintendent? Someone has to come up with who's going to take care of the kids,” she said. All 1,842 of them at West High alone.

'Different' kind of cleanup

The Anchorage School District -- the state's largest -- is grappling with the $25 million budget shortfall. Some 200 support staffers are expected to be cut to hew to the district's goal and keep as many instructors in the classroom as possible.

The gap, due to flat funding from the state, despite the rising cost of education in the district, thanks to increases in negotiated salaries, heath benefits, utilities and fuel.

Much has been made about the loss of counselors. The district has proposed cutting about 30 counselors  overall, or about 20 percent of the total district-wide. Who else?:

  • 36 custodians, also known as “building plant operators” (BPOs);
  • 11 building leadership or administrative support staffers (registrars and administrative assistants);
  • 80 teaching assistants and tutors. 

In its financial overview plan, the school district acknowledges that cleaning will be “different” next year. Chief Operating Officer Mike Abbott said that means the school district will evaluate cleaning styles. For example, schools may not clean every space every night. It also means the district might move all or some night staffer to days or swing shifts so they can work closer with the day staff.

Despite the changes, Abbott said in an email that the district doesn't have any concerns about whether the schools can be kept clean. “We believe more precise allocation of staff and the use of different cleaning systems will allow the remaining workforce to keep the schools in a clean, sanitary and safe condition,” he wrote.

Good in theory

Andy Holleman, president of the Anchorage Education Association, said that while the cuts make sense in theory, they could pose problems.

For example, while incidents like dealing with fecal matter isn't routine (more like once a month, Miller said), it does happen. When no one is immediately available to help, it can mean trouble.

“Schools can do scheduling, and say 'this will work,'” Holleman said. “But when something goes wrong, when you have issue, then suddenly you’re short-staffed.”

Fewer custodians also means there will be more pressure on teachers to clean up after school, Holleman said. While teachers generally do some clean-up after school, it's important to remember the balance needed in pushing those duties to instructors.

“And we would rather focus on instruction,” Holleman said.

Worries for the students

Losing teachers is not something the district or the school board wants to consider, Holleman noted. Already, there have been several meetings about the issue, with one more planned for Feb. 21, when the Anchorage School Board is also scheduled to vote.

Unless things change, Miller is not planning to return to West next year, despite decades of experience. Already, she’s been told she could take a pay cut and continue working with the district, though not in the same school. Miller isn't interested in that scenario.

It's a tough call for Miller, a grandmother. She said for years she's made sure to get the proper immunizations and training to deal with the messes she encounters. She just worries for the kids.

“Really, my concern is only to the health of the kids who really (may) carry it home,” she said. “It could be a deadly disease if we don't take care of it.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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