First published in the Nov. 12 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
The Burbank Unified School District had a simple message for teachers and administrators last week: Their recent complaints regarding the shortage of custodians have been heard loud and clear, and BUSD staff is committed to improving the situation.
Like many other districts and businesses, Burbank Unified has struggled to fill custodial vacancies since the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in personnel being stretched thin and some teachers having to clean their own classrooms.
“I sympathize with the frustrations I’ve heard this past month. Our faculty has been patient, they’ve been understanding, and they’ve been hardworking for a long time as we’ve confronted a variety of facility challenges,” Andrew Cantwell, assistant superintendent of administrative services, said during a Board of Education meeting on Nov. 3. “On behalf of district leadership, I want to say sorry.”
Cantwell, who was hired in October, is spearheading the district’s effort in remedying the situation and presented an update to the board. After speaking directly to educators, he acknowledged the challenges BUSD custodians face today.
“We have custodians who go above and beyond daily for their schools,” Cantwell said. “For every person that sets foot on their campus, they take pride in their work. Often, it’s a thankless job. They’re underpaid. There are often vacancies and absences that shift workloads across the site.”
Though 16 positions have been filled in the past year and an additional two people were hired last week, BUSD still has five job openings and is short on custodial substitutes. According to Cantwell, the district was hit with most of the vacancies within the past month.
The district has had as many as 30 individuals on the substitutes list, and that number has dwindled to three workers.
Cantwell said the district had 15 interviews lined up last week but only four individuals show up. The district has struggled to compete with other businesses when it comes to salary, which starts at $16.59 per hour.
“The truth is that compensation is a major challenge for us. Some of our competitors, even Target, start at $20 or more an hour,” Cantwell said.
The California School Employees Association, the labor union that includes custodians, can negotiate compensation with BUSD, and Superintendent Matt Hill informed the board that the district can move any changes forward “anytime this school year.”
Cantwell assured stakeholders that the district has already taken actions to alleviate the custodian shortage and allay the workers’ concerns, one of them being streamlining the overtime payment process. Recent changes to procedures lengthened the process with employees having to go through as many as 28 pages just to be compensated for overtime, and payment would be delayed. Employees now only have to submit one page.
The district is also reinstituting custodial staff training, improving channels of communication between employees and expanding recruitment strategies to cast a wider net of applicants.
To shorten the period between the interview process and hiring, BUSD is paying for the cost of fingerprinting done for background checks. Health screenings, a process that could last months, have been eliminated.
The board seemed to approve of the district’s strategies, but Vice President Steve Ferguson believes that benchmarks must be set to build trust with the employees and hold BUSD leaders accountable.
“I think we need to demonstrate progress with sincerity, and I think we can do that by saying, ‘Look, we expanded the [substitute] pool by five. If we haven’t expanded the sub pool by five, we will do [this, such as] contracting out,” he said.
Board member Steve Frintner agreed with his colleague and suggested that Burbank Unified consider hiring outside help.
“I think realistically, as it was pointed out, we’ve been dealing with this for over a year, and if we can’t fill those positions as they are compensated at the moment, we have to be able to clean our schools and provide a safe and clean environment,” Frintner said.
Ferguson later clarified his stance on outsourcing, saying he’s in support of it only if the district doesn’t meet the established objectives.
“In my book, if you contract out, then you up the pay of your folks to $20 an hour because we didn’t meet those benchmarks. Otherwise, we have no incentive,” Ferguson said. “So, if we’re going to go that route, we better be ready to punish ourselves to a certain extent and to demonstrate it’s our goal to have people who are a part of the campus community and who belong to us first and foremost before we even go there.”