In effort to cut costs on grounds maintenance, Frederick County Public School officials are considering outsourcing some of the duties that are currently performed by school custodians.
Based on a recent study, which explored ways to make the school system’s grounds maintenance more efficient, officials believe they may be able to cut costs by about 28.9 percent annually, or $483,000, if they use outside contractors instead of school custodians to mow and do landscaping around schools.
To test that projection, the Frederick County Board of Education on Nov. 28 authorized staff to move forward with a pilot study, which will help determine on a small scale if it would be cheaper to outsource some of the grounds maintenance duties that school custodians perform now.
Frederick County Public Schools currently employ 352 custodians to maintain 73 buildings and more than 925 acres of properties countywide. Custodians have a range of duties, including mowing and landscaping around schools, said Ray Barnes, the school system’s facilities director.
However, each school in the system has a designated custodian who dedicates about 20 percent of his or her time on these duties, which overall represents the equivalent of 12 to 13 full-time positions, he said.
During the pilot, school officials want to determine what they can save in salaries, equipment and maintenance if an outside company takes over these duties, said Barnes, who presented plans for the pilot to the school board last week.
“We won’t know how much we’ll save until we put out a bid,” Barnes said on Friday. “We have to go through the pilot and test it.”
Barnes said Friday he does not yet have a specific timeline for the pilot, which will only take place at a small number of schools. The exact schools for the pilot also have yet to be selected, he said.
But if the effort is successful and the savings are significant, staff could ask the school board to implement the change systemwide.
While school board members last week did not object to moving forward with the pilot, April Miller and Kathryn “Katie” B. Groth raised some concerns about the possible elimination of existing custodian positions.
“When we start talking about outsourcing, our folks get very nervous,” Groth said.
John Gates, the UniServ director for the Frederick Association of School Support Employees, also expressed concern about the effort and said on Monday he was unaware the school system was considering outsourcing that could affect school custodians.
“When it starts in one area it will lead to looking at another area,” he said on Monday.
But Barnes said the change does not necessarily mean that the system will be eliminating existing positions.
“Right now we have no plans to reduce staffing,” he said. “There is sort of a list of things that could happen.”
The potential outsourcing could allow the school system to save money from the cost of keeping in-house equipment such as tractors and lawn mowers, which also require gas and maintenance. If the savings in equipment is significant, school officials may be able to just free up more for custodians to work inside schools, Barnes said.
“We don’t know what the outcome is going to be,” he said on Monday. “There is a whole host of options... At this stage, it would be very premature to anticipate any reductions in staffing levels.”
Frederick County Schools Superintendent Theresa Alban said the school system should at least explore the possibility for savings and cost-efficiencies.
“This isn’t about outsourcing to eliminate a department or to wipe out workers who are currently here,” she said. “This is about trying to find a more efficient way to do things and use the people we have in the most optimal manner.”
According to school officials, the pilot is part of an ongoing effort to evaluate different operations and ensure the school system is being run efficiently.
The roots of the effort date back to 2010, when the current Board of County Commissioners was elected and asked the school board to look for potential efficiencies in the work of a number of school system departments, including grounds maintenance, Barnes said.
The school system as a result hired a contractor, Facilities Engineering Associates of Fairfax, Va., to analyze the system’s existing grounds maintenance operations and determine possibilities for cost savings. Over the past few months, the company put together a report, considering various options for savings and efficiencies in grounds maintenance, which is currently performed by three different groups — an outside contractor, a central office-based grounds crew and school-based custodians.
The report, which was presented to the school board on Nov. 28, found that the school system could save the most by contracting out only the grounds maintenance duties performed by school custodians. It also recommended that the school system do a pilot before implementing changes to current practices.
The study also advised against outsourcing snow removal services that are now also handled by school custodians. According to the study, school-based custodians can respond to snowy conditions faster than contractors, preventing unnecessary school delays and closures.
Board member April Miller commended the school system for completing the study. But she also expressed concern about the possibility of eliminating custodial positions.
“Those custodians know the schools better than anyone and some of what they do is downright amazing,” she said. “I definitely appreciate looking into the efficiencies of the grounds (operations), but there is a lot of things that our staff do that can’t be replaced.”