First published in the Oct. 29 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Schools throughout the state are slowly but surely still working on recovering from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, but the Burbank Unified School District’s struggle with employment remains persistent, specifically in the custodial department.
Diana Abasta, president of the Burbank Teachers Association, went before the Board of Education during a meeting on Oct. 20 to address the issue, expressing concern over the lack of cleanliness in classrooms as a result of the shortage of custodians as well as a high number of absences among employees.
“We cannot tolerate, nor will we support, the lack of critical systems missing in management,” said Abasta, who displayed pictures of the current conditions of facilities such as cobwebs in corners, dirty sinks and full trash bins not being emptied.
Some teachers have had to take initiative and clean their own space to ensure a healthy classroom for their students.
“This has now become a teacher’s standard in the closet: I’ve got my broom, I’ve got my sweeper, I’ve got my dustpan and I’ve got the liquid detergent,” Abasta said. “When someone is unable to report to work, there needs to be a system that allows others to work.”
Superintendent Matt Hill acknowledged that Burbank Unified hasn’t had success in filling vacancies for custodians and has been working closely with the California Schools Employee Association to explore options and have better systems in place to address the high number of absences. He assured Abasta that Andy Cantwell, BUSD’s newly hired assistant superintendent of administrative services, is scheduling visits with each site to meet with custodial staff and talk about the current challenges.
The district is also looking to improve its approach to the recruiting and hiring process.
“I know; I’ve seen it when I’m visiting the schools,” Hill said. “We’re all pitching in to help, but that is not a sustainable solution. So, we have to do our short-term solutions and then get to the long-term solution.”
The board echoed Hill and pledged to work on finding a solution to the problem.
“We’ve been trying to fill the positions,” said Board member Steve Frintner. “We have not been able to. It’s on us to try and find a way to correct this, and we will continue to and find different ways to approach this.”
Board President Charlene Tabet, who is a member of the facilities committee that meets twice a month, said that 16 custodians have been hired in the last year, but agreed with Abasta that more needs to be done and the district must not only hire more custodians but plumbers as well to maintain facilities.
“Good effort, I think, is being made, although it doesn’t seem like quite enough,” Tabet said.
BUSD classified employees, which include custodians and cafeteria workers, are spread thin and, at times, have had to work multiple sites or different shifts to address the specific needs of each site.
Abasta believes that if the district had a payment system in which employees were compensated for their overtime quicker, then more would be willing to put in the extra effort.
“Dumping work on a daytime custodian because there’s not a night custodian is neither fair nor humane,” she said. “Pulling a custodian from a site and using them at another site is also not fair nor humane.
“Why would anyone want to work more hours if they are not going to be paid in a timely manner? The work is not being done,” she added.
After thanking BUSD employees for their work three months into the school year, Board Vice President Steve Ferguson said that something must be done to restore the trust between the board and stakeholders and alluded to possibly having to make big changes within Burbank Unified to better retain employees.
“There needs to be a reset and a re-engagement, frankly, and possibly at the board level to iron this out,” Ferguson said. “The district has always had a long history of enjoying staff that move up and progress and move up within our system […] where folks can really spend their entire careers here.
“And now, for whatever reason and there could be a million guesses, we have a lot of vacancies and not a lot of interest. At some point, we can only build systems until we have to address a culture,” he added.
Hill said that he would update the board on the issue within the next month.