With most school districts all over the country scrambling to cover educational funding shortfalls and increasing class sizes, at least one state governor is publicly questioning why all school districts don’t contract custodial services. School district administrators are facing the increasing budget cuts pressure to consider (or reconsider) contracting of those support services that are not related directly to curriculum delivery.

However, a district’s consideration of outsourcing custodial (and other support) services often is cut short because of a lack of available staff, accurate cost data, past failures, avoiding the disruption of change, community/staff cultural resistance, union pressure, fearing loss of management control and quality, or even some states contracting regulations. But, as many districts face significant budget shortfalls and the potential savings so real and significant, those districts are being forced to take a fresh look, even if it means making some uncomfortable “cultural” change decisions.

Outsourcing custodial or other support services may not be the silver "budget cut" bullet for all education institutions. But experience has shown that successful school districts with in-house programs of moderate size or larger—10 to 15 buildings, 950,000+ square feet, and with generally concise geographic boundaries—have realized a savings of 25 to 40 percent when eliminating in-house services (costs) and outsourcing custodial services.

For example, if a district in the 1 million-square-foot range can save just $.50/square foot on custodial costs, it has saved $500,000, which could mean five to seven teaching positions or meet other facility needs. Other districts have found a smaller savings, but a higher level of quality and service delivery.

Unless the majority of district staff and patrons are involved in, or at least informed about the process and can understand that custodial services can be purchased as a standards based “commodity” service, the outcome of the effort will be less than optimal. The shift in overall perspective does take time—it may actually take a year or two to walk the stakeholders through the transition and have acceptance of the new way of doing business. It is a “bottom line/business model" perspective that many districts resist culturally and politically.

Those districts that have completed the comprehensive cost review and standards establishment have, at a minimum, validated whether their current delivery model is or can be made more cost-effective; established current performance and desired standards for in-house custodial staff; quantified what savings may be possible; determined whether pursuing contracted services makes sense; and determined what cleaning standards to specify in a request for quotations (RFQ).

Note: There are a number of trade and industry-generic service standards guidelines for reference, including APPA (APPA.org). Pricing ranges many successful districts are realizing:

Level A: Pristine service…almost never any complaints: $1.55 to $2.00 range
Level B: Generally neat and orderly…few complaints: $1.35 to $1.55 range
Level C: Routine daily service… a few more complaints: $1.15 to 1.35 range
Level D: Reduced frequency of service… Complaints common: $.95 to 1.15 range
Level E: Minimal cleaning, debris evident, frequent complaints: $.95 and less range

Keys to success

Education institutions that have outsourced custodial services successfully have several things in common—they "front-loaded" their contracting and service delivery process following some common steps with:

1. Accurate and current accounting data of pure custodial services costs. With 85 percent of overall (fully burdened) custodial costs being labor, it will be important to identify those current positions that are hybrid (not 100 percent) custodial and determine the portion of the costs that are "pure" custodial.

Smaller, more dispersed districts often have combination day custodial positions that perform some maintenance tasks without any clear definition of assigned custodial duties or cleaning standards to be met or followed.

Without taking staff and patrons through the internal process of establishing the current and acceptable service standards options, there is no clear definition to the standards vendors would quote, and generally, there is a wide range of interpretation of what "cleaning" means.

Too many districts that skip the “setting standards” step and incorporation of those standards into the RFP/Contract, and generally find out after the contract is signed that the service level provided does not meet staff and patron expectations. Promised savings and/or quality improvements do not result—either from failure to adjust the overall service model (staff reductions) or to monitoring contractor performance.

There also is ongoing contract compliance and accountability value in having “in-house” staff be part of the original evaluation and setting standards. When those staff are not available, outside and independent facilities consultants can facilitate the review process, audit a vendor review, as well as an unbiased formulation of bidding, and ongoing evaluation criteria. It may also be possible to purchase the service directly from another successful district with staff consulting time available.

2. Establishing the cultural/philosophical will to make necessary budget reductions and change the fundamental way they do business. Outsourcing services that historically have been in-house functions with long-time employees is a major shift in institutional culture that many districts are not equipped to manage—despite the cost savings that could be realized.

Unless the decision process is gradual, inclusionary (staff and patrons), and the standards basis is well-documented, the emotions of change can derail the process. Once you can get stakeholders to view custodial services as a standardized "commodity," the teachers and classrooms will prevail, overcoming community loyalties and union objections.

As administrative, business and facilities staff begin to investigate the possibility and potential savings of contracted services, it will be important to start a concurrent staff and public “cats-on-the-roof” discussion of the pros and cons of contracted services and possible transition options. Most often the discussion comes down to a couple of factors: quality of the service an outside service provider will provide vs. in-house custodians (what the buildings may need to give up) and the affect the outsourcing of services will have on existing staff positions and lay-offs—both very emotional and subjective discussions.

Generally, the loyalty to existing custodial/maintenance staff is difficult to overcome and will be resisted vigorously by any union representation without a well-thought-out, inclusionary transition plan and sound (verified) financial basis.

Many of the successful outsourcing of services happen incrementally/over time with the discussion and alignment of expectations happening up-front and then letting the projected savings drive the decision. In many cases the transition can start with a management contract to manage in-house staff to perform to industry and internally developed standards/efficiencies, then consolidate staff as attrition takes place, and transition to contracted staff a building (or group of buildings at a time over time the softer approach. New facilities are often the best testing grounds for the outside services and can prove that quality is maintainable (cleaning standards) and other perceived down sides to contracted services are manageable. The incremental approach can prevent the fear of an “all in” methodology and make the transition more comfortable for everyone. But again, the key is to establish the service standards and evaluate the service provider’s performance on those documented and contracted service standards. Additionally, the standards can provide a means to monitor in-house staff performance and efficiency as well as time to realign and further define the overall support services model.

3. Establishing clear curriculum-focused budgets, spending priorities and accountability. Many districts' support services models have evolved into the in-house hybrid custodial/maintenance positions — because of geographical necessity, because there was no clear definition of tasks or performance standards.

The basic determination: "Is the custodian a building asset or a district/facilities asset?"

The "building custodian" may wear many hats … even support student supervision because of regular staffing cuts and building scheduling conflicts. The basic determination is however: "Is the custodian a building asset or a district/facilities asset?" with tasks and priorities set by standards and monitoring by a facilities departtment. Or is this left to be tasked to the building principal.

To ensure optimization of both custodial and maintenance staff and maximize their productivity, the establishment of performance standards and assignment of tasks should be centrally guided, standards-based, well-documented and with in-service training reinforced. Principal "discretionary time" should be kept to a minimum to ensure time is available to complete tasks and meet standards without getting diluted with "emergent/non-custodial/staff support" tasks. This may have to be adjusted gradually over time as those non-custodial tasks are shifted to others or deleted.

Without a clear separation and minimum of overlap of custodial and maintenance (including grounds and even food service), tasks and a system to allocate borderline or "as-needed" tasks, you have well-intentioned custodians performing tasks they may not be qualified to perform or can perform efficiently.

Conversely, maintenance staff may be tasked with duties that may not optimize their capabilities or have the highest value to the district. That does not mean, however, that the definition of tasks need to be so rigid they don't accommodate custodians dealing with some emergent items and maintenance dealing with custodial-related items in the course of their basic functions in smaller more remote locations, just that they or time needs to be allocated. Although you can generally find individuals or situations in most districts that the cross-over coverage works and is even necessary, generally speaking, it is most efficient and accountable for maintenance staff to maintain, custodians to clean, with minimum of cross-over tasks without clear accountability.

Grounds, security, food service and athletics/event support also need to be defined clearly to ensure that significant time is not lost to supporting those functions and dilute the core cleaning standards and expectations, unless those tasks or time are specifically allotted and accounted for in the standards or as "additional services." Without that upfront recognition and allocation of tasks and time allotments, time will be sucked away for classrooms or other standards functions, leaving everyone wondering why "my classroom didn't get cleaned last night?".

Although custodial is the logical choice to help prepare before and clean up after special events and do final security checks, those special, athletic or community events can take away for the routine tasks and time lost unless there is a tracking mechanism for "out of standards" requests. Events support should be documented and charged/budgeted for separately so that backup or call-in staff can backfill to complete the standards cleaning. If "off contract" needs and requests are tracked and billed as additional "out of standards" services, it ensures that requesters have clear budget responsibilities and accountability without adversely impacting the standards cleaning, or the compliance to the basic cleaning standards. Grant programs can be another source of dilution to regular cleaning standards if grant requests and budgets do not recognize the real cost of the additional custodial support that are absorbed into the summer cleaning process.

4. Development of clear and published cleaning standards, staff performance and expectations. Once the "optimal and acceptable" service standards have been established by staff and patron input, those standards become the basis (unitized time values x costs) and the starting point for all proposers' options values: the Plans A, B, and C in the RFP.

The basic strategy is to bid multiple levels of specified service standards (Plans A, B, C) based on priorities (essential, best practice, like to have) … and perhaps even a Plan D that is recommended by the vendor from its experience of minimum levels and assessment of the district or campus needs. By establishing the vendor's unitized time values of tasks and having an overall (burdened) hourly rate quoted, districts can fine-tune final service standards in a contract with proportional reductions of cost and service value.

The reality of the Plan A is that it likely represents the "wish list" and may not compare with current in-house services being provided—or what the district can afford; it will be useful to realign internal expectations when it comes down to the "sticker shock".

The basic strategy is to bid multiple levels of specified service standards (Plans A, B, C) based on priorities (essential, best practice, minimum needs), and perhaps even a Plan D that is recommended by the vendor from its experience of minimum levels and their read of the district. It is important to provide the detailed standards work and pricing sheets as part of the RFP so that all proposers are providing the same pricing the same way on the same standards, and you can ensure they have covered all standards adequately. These sheets will help in weeding out the low-ball bids that cannot perform to standards and are understaffed.

Remember, you never get better pricing than you will get on bid day. If you go out to bid with only the Plan A and your Plan B is to negotiate backwards to get to an affordable number, you will likely lose more service standards than the reduction in cost. By establishing the vendors unitized time values of tasks and having an overall (burdened) hourly rate quoted, institutions can fine-tune final service standards in a contract with proportional reductions of cost and service value. What results is a set of service standards that meet budget requirements, the basis of what standards are communicated with staff/patrons, and the defined basis of evaluating contractor performance, value of additional services, or value of future cuts and add-ins.

Whatever contract standards are agreed upon and the operational transition is begun, do not underestimate the importance of the on-site operational manager. Ensure that the RFP requires proposers to submit their manager's resume and a commitment to leave that person in place for the first year, unless the district feels a change is required. The game is often a "bait and switch:" proposing an experienced manager who does the startup and is then moved on to secure other new accounts. Coming in new to an account and orchestrating a transition/startup is difficult for even the most experienced managers without the resource support of a larger organization.

It will be important for thecustodial manager to have that support pool, be intimately familiar with the standards, understand district priorities and politics, be comfortable and credible when communicating with staff, and managing to standards without being sidetracked by out-of-standards requests. The custodial manager will need to attend staff meetings from time to time to hear complaints, resolve standards issues and continually realign staff expectations with contract standards, especially at the first of each school year.

Mechanization will be a key component to how much area one custodian will be able to cover. Although high levels of mechanization (floor scrubbers vs. mop and bucket as an example) can multiply custodian effectiveness, the building geometry and condition of finished surfaces will be a big factor in how much equipment can be used. Most proposals can provide the new and startup equipment needed as part of theproposal, but make sure you understand what pieces you are getting, what their useful life span is, and have provisions in the contract for the equipment to belong to the district should the contractor not perform to standards—and the contract terminated.

5. Alignment of other support services delivery model to accommodate contracted services. The first year of the contract is the most difficult in realigning everyone to focusing on the new standards and not "the way we used to do it." Ensure that the RFP requires proposers to submit their manager's resume and a commitment to leave that person in place for the first year, unless the district feels a change is required.

To help everyone adjust to the new cleaning and performance standards, the first year will need to be heavy with periodic performance checks and expectation realignments with staff, patrons and administrators. In-service training with custodial and other support staff will be essential to reinforce the specific contracted custodial standards, and how custodial and other support staff can function cooperatively without leaving service coverage gaps. It is advisable to ensure that separate line items are established within the overall custodial support budget for standards service, additional above-standards service needs, community/building events, athletics and even superintendent- directed support. Having the specific line item to charge against, you provide the users oversight and accountability to operate and manage within budget limits, monitor as you go along year-to-date, as well as identify where additional cuts may be necessary or possible without affecting direct classroom and curriculum support cleaning standards. It all comes back to managing to the cleaning standards and accounting for non-standards and additional needs service.

All non-academic support services become the easiest target for budget cuts and generally absorb a disproportionate share of those cuts to minimize cuts in the classroom. If the cleaning standards have been properly quantified with service frequency and unit costs, the basis for future budget cuts are set forth in the contract with the mechanism and the value of the service standards cuts is already laid out. It becomes fairly straightforward to go down the service standards list and determine what service frequencies or items can be reduced or eliminated to equal the savings needed, or the value saved with the common "furlough" days. Generally speaking, it is advisable to make budget cuts with the same staff input that established the standards with some ability to customize their cuts in a way that has the least impact to individual buildings or programs. The elementary buildings will have different priorities than the middle or high schools.

But, be careful the athletic director doesn't hijack the budget-cut decisions and focus the cuts on classrooms in favor of a continued level of support for athletic programs and events. It will take a strong superintendant and business manager to ensure the cuts are distributed equitably across the district. Athletic directors historically have been influential in the support-services allocation decisionmaking process because of supportive parents and the community visibility of athletic programs. Many of those programs are viewed as a means towards college scholarships, along with the community pride. The athletic directors also commonly have the authority to "pull" resources from the classrooms at the last moment and "call an audible" with little or no oversight. It generally is best to have a specific budget item for additional athletics support that an athletic director can manager within, and not be buried "as-needed" in custodial standards.

Supportive "superintendent-directed" and community special events can be the silent enemy to many custodial budgets and cuts by adding an un-reimbursed "dilution factor" that may not be noticed initially, but over time, will silently deteriorate cleaning standards. Although there are a variety of strategies for dealing with the superintendent factor, community-use policies and costs, the basic strategy is to ensure that the community and event support costs are separated and accounted for by individual event and man-hours utilized so they can either be charged for directly to facilities users (recoup out-of-pocket costs), or charged against a specific budget line item for that purpose. This will enable future considerations of additional cuts to be clearly identified and not cut basic classroom cleaning standards. Be very careful in having "as-needed" buckets that multiple functions and individuals have the authority to draw from—there is inadequate definition to what "as-needed" means and no budget accountability.

Grant programs can be another "last-minute" source of dilution to regular cleaning standards if grant requests and budgets do not recognize the real cost of custodial support and are absorbed into the summer cleaning process. Without utilization of additional staff to cover the summer program needs or back-fill for regular staff, the normal summer cleaning effort is minimized. Although some grant programs that are augmentation of regular school year curricular programs and may prohibit any custodial costs being allocated, the costs of any additional custodial support time should be included in the grant request as a matter of district policy. Those costs can be billed as "additional non-contract services," accounted and staffed for separately along with community utilization and special event support—but at contract rates—and billed on a monthly basis.

Support services become the easiest target for budget cuts and generally absorb a disproportionate share of those cuts to minimize cuts in the classroom. If the cleaning standards have been quantified properly with service frequency and unit costs, the basis for future budget cuts are set forth in the contract with the mechanism and the value of the service standards (unit values) already laid out.

No matter what the overall support services goal—budget reduction, efficiency review or reality check—the investment of time to go through the due diligence and internal process of evaluating the outsourcing of custodial or other support services and setting service and performance standards, can result in several benefits.

These include supporting significant budget cuts, increased efficiency and accountability of custodial staff and support dollars, alignment of staff and patron expectations, and "bottom line" culture change in how support services are viewed in education organizations and the overall cultural perspective.

6. Front-loading the RFP/RFQ contracting process to anticipate future contract reductions. There are no shortcuts to the front-loading of the "internal" process. It must be largely internally driven and supported.

7. Ongoing evaluation of contractor performance to contracted standards and quality.

8. Periodic realignment/focusing of internal customer/patron expectations to standards.

Thetford is a facilities manager with Forest Grove School District, Forest Grove, Ore. This article is based on the success achieved over the last 10 years by Forest Grove and other Oregon districts that have followed a similar contracting model. This model has evolved over the last 20 years with elements derived from healthcare accreditation standards and monitoring methodologies. He can be reached at tthetford@fgsd.k12.or.us.