In a three-hour Portsmouth School Committee meeting packed with green-shirted supporters and marked by sharp partisan exchanges between Democrat Dave Croston and Republican Chair Cynthia Perrotti and Vice-Chair Jonathan Harris, the effort to outsource the district's custodial and maintenance staff went down to a 5-2 defeat. An unrelated austerity move that would have left empty the position of a retiring PHS assistant principal met the same fate.
There were more than 70 supporters of the custodians and maintenance staff on hand for the meeting — which had been moved to the high school auditorium because of the anticipated crowd — and many took the opportunity to speak during the public comment time near the top of the agenda.
Rick Weida, the PHS head custodian urged the committee to think about student safety. "We know how how many foot-pounds it takes to open a door," he said, adding that they make sure any child can move them in an emergency. He also talked about staff going above and beyond, like a crew that emptied all the dumpsters to find a student's lost retainer. [Editorial note: I apologize for not catching Rick's last name, my ears are pretty clogged right now; if someone can add in comments or message me, I'll update.] [Updated]
Teachers also spoke in solidarity. Amanda Boswell stressed the importance of the custodial staff as part of the school. "Custodial staff are our community," she said. "They teach our students respect and that we should be proud of our surroundings." Pat McCarthy was direct about the need for school committee to show respect for their employees. "They deserve better at the hands of the town, its administration, and its elected officials."
When public comment ended, the agenda moved forward and there emerged something of an undercard event, a proposal by School Committee member Angela Volpicelli. From the agenda: "I would like to discuss the feasibility of having one Vice Principal at the High School. I feel that having one Vice Principal could be feasible and would have a positive impact on the budget."
Ms. Volpicelli offered no specific metrics to justify the assertion of feasibility. There was a discussion of the way the schools were years ago, when there was only one assistant principal. Fellow committee member Marilyn King offered the suggestion that the school hire a "security officer" instead.
Seriously, Ms. King? Why not just call in the Department of Homeland Security and have pilotless drones in the hallways?
PHS Principal Robert Littlefield argued strenuously that the increasing mandates for student improvement and new curriculum made the second position imperative. Asst. Principal Jeff Goss warned the committee that they could "destroy the school system" with just four votes.
Tailgunner Gleason got up to the mike to offer a rambling screed that seemed both embrace the custodians ("I need you like you need me.") while also supporting austerity measures, and telling the committee she understood their difficulties ("I've sat up there before, and may again.") prompting Dave Croston to ask pointedly, "Are you running?"
PCC apparatchik Cheshire Kathy Melvin urged the committee to cut the position and let the chips fall where they may. ""If it's a disaster, it's a disaster." It's clear that the PCC cares more about taxes then whatever might happen to our kids in a school with insufficient supervision.
In a show of rationality, when it came time to count the votes, the proposal failed, 5-2, with King and Volpicelli in the minority.
Then it was on to the main event.
Wealth management professional Jonathan Harris moved to issue a request for proposals (RFP) to privatize custodial and maintenance.
There was a very, very long pause, and finally, Cynthia Perrotti stepped up and seconded.
Then Harris, as befitting a captain of industry, regaled the attendees with a PowerPoint presentation, showing lots of numbers. You can download it from the PSD site. You may also want to view the rest of his supporting material here.
In what Harris clearly believed was his killer chart, he showed that a teacher with 28 years of service ended up only with 60% of their salary in retirement, but a custodial staff member with 40 years of service received 144%. Perrotti apparently liked the point — she repeated it as evidence that the system was unsustainable.
Sleight of hand with data gets right up my nose. I got up to speak. My son, Jack, had asked me to be sure to mention how much he appreciates the custodians who assist the middle school Green Team, where they work side-by-side with kids after school to recycle. I added that, as a parent, I appreciate knowing the folks who work with my son, and knowing that they care about our kids. And I asked Harris about the actual dollar numbers, rather than percentages. He acknowledged that the retirement numbers would be about $46K for custodial and $42K for the teacher, which, I pointed out, paints a very different picture than 144% and 60%.
And, finally, I reminded our community that both Harris and Perrotti opposed the referendum to exceed the cap two years ago on the grounds that extra money for the schools wasn't needed. And now they turn around and cry poverty as an excuse to "screw these guys."
Admittedly, not the most polite language for a school committee meeting. But I was genuinely annoyed. We need to remember.
There was more excellent speaking from members of the custodial staff, and the president of RI Council 94, and when push came to shove, the motion failed, 5-2 with Harris and Perrotti in the minority.
I made a point of going up to the committee and thanking Sylvia Wedge, Angela Volpicelli, Marilyn King, Dave Croston, and Tom Vadney for their votes.
Update 12:18pm 3/28/12: Added Rick Weida's last name, thanks to an informed reader.
Editorial note: Apologies if this post is a bit sloppy; I just about made it through the meeting and am home sick today (as is our son) with this late-season bug that's been going around. Thanks to everyone who came out and spoke last night to defend our school community.