By GAIL LOWE
WAKEFIELD — In recent weeks, maintenance of the town’s schools has become a hot button issue, starting with a full report given to the school board by Charles “Chip” Tarbell on Tuesday, Aug. 26 and ending with the report being heard by the Board of Selectmen Monday night.
About nine months ago, Tarbell was appointed to head a Task Force by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Stephen K. Zrike. The Task Force’s duties included a review of all the educational facilities, including maintenance and custodial services.
Tarbell’s report drew criticism from some residents, surprise from others and, in some instances, agreement.
One School Department employee who works as a custodian requested anonymity but went on the defensive. He said that the formation of the Task Force is “just another approach to make (outsourcing) happen and screw the hard working school employees.” He further stated that “lack of manpower and time are not excuses.”
“We have been shortchanged on staff and funding for years,” he said, adding that the Task Force’s report delivered by Tarbell on Aug. 26 “ruined the morale of a dedicated staff.”
There are currently 23 full-time custodians and three bus drivers who assist with custodial needs while not transporting children who report to Peter Evangelista, head of the Custodial Department for the schools.
“While some custodians have expressed their concern with the recently released Task Force report, they continue to take great pride in their work,” he said.
At the beginning of his report, Tarbell said that the Task Force found the schools “picked up” but no “deep cleanings” had been done. He cited lack of manpower and time as reasons for the shortfall.
Evangelista this week gave his views on the situation and said that deep cleanings are handled during the summer months and include “top to bottom cleaning of every space in the buildings.”
“This also includes stripping and waxing all floors,” he commented. “We are also able to conduct some deep cleaning during school vacation weeks and during the second and third shifts, as needed.”
Evangelista continued: “Over the years, the custodial staff has been cut due to budget constraints. In addition to all restrooms being cleaned and sanitized daily, every classroom and hallway is ‘floor cleaned’ (trash emptied and floors swept) daily, but there are not enough resources available to put a rotational schedule in place to systematically work our way through each building.
“Ideally, I would like to see the custodial resources increased so we could move through each section of each building on a schedule to allow full cleaning to occur three or four times per year instead of only summer breaks.”
Evangelista also wanted to clarify an issue concerning communication between himself and Chris Pierce, who oversees the town’s buildings apart from schools. The Task Force report mentioned that the two do not communicate on a daily basis.
“I believe Mr. Tarbell was referring to how our work order systems do not communicate,” he said.
The Task Force also called for the sanitization of all surfaces inside the schools, something that has been lacking, according to the Task Force’s findings.
Evangelista agreed with the assessment and said that certain areas do require daily sanitized cleaning, such as the cafeteria and restrooms.
“The custodial staff also walks the grounds each morning to pick up trash and identify any safety concerns in the play areas,” he said. “They also examine the grounds for graffiti or vandalism to school property.”
Evangelista insisted that it would be nearly impossible at current staffing levels to expect a custodial staff member to sanitize 25 student desks, tables, door handles, countertops, lockers and chairs in each of the 20 to 25 classrooms, bathrooms, corridors and offices they are assigned to clean during their eight-hour shift.
Currently, there are three shifts of custodial staff at the high school and middle school. The majority of the staff is on duty between 3 p.m. and 7 a.m. to handle daily cleanings. Evangelista explained that the custodians on staff during the day are primarily tasked with cleaning the cafeteria during and after lunch service as well as addressing issues that arise (cleaning up after sick students, accepting deliveries, restocking supplies, changing light bulbs and things of that nature).
“In three of the elementary schools, we run two shifts, again with the majority being after hours. In the two smaller elementary schools we run one shift per day,” he commented.
One of the Task Force’s targets was to look at overtime costs and how they might be addressed.
In response, Evangelista said that overtime can occur at certain times during the year to accommodate for snow removal or to cover for an employee who might be out sick or on vacation.
“If an employee is expected to be out for a long period of time, we attempt to bring in a substitute custodian,” Evangelista said “Also, a custodian who is called back to check on an alarm is paid at the overtime rate.”
He added that the custodians did a “great job” this summer getting the schools ready to open.
“They take pride in what they do every day,” he said. “There are many things that people won’t see that they do during their work day — such as setting up for meetings, fixing furniture, delivering supplies, painting and fixing lockers.
“It’s real easy to point out some of the negative things, but there are many positive things we can look at, also. We are always looking to improve and make things more efficient.”
On Monday night, Tarbell went before the Board of Selectmen to apprise them of the Task Force’s findings, and a suggestion was made to form yet another committee.
In today’s Forum, Selectman Phyllis Hull wrote: “We have enough committees right now that should know what to do. We do not need more.”