New MSCS custodial contracts would give school staff more input

A Shelby County Schools employee sanitizes one of many long cafeteria tables while a group of people stand toward the back of the room.
A custodial worker prepares a school for students’ return during the pandemic in 2021, before custodial services were consolidated with ServiceMaster Clean. ServiceMaster would have to share the duties with three other vendors under a proposed custodial services contract due for a school board vote next week. (Julia Baker / Chalkbeat)

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Memphis-Shelby County Schools is poised to switch to new custodial-service contracts that would give school staff greater say in the cleanliness of their buildings and change the way vendors are evaluated.

Under the proposal, which the school board will consider next week, the district would contract with four cleaning companies: Fresh Start Facility Services Inc., HES Facilities Maintenance, ParCou, and ServiceMaster Clean. Each vendor would be assigned a zone, or a set of schools to clean, and the transition would begin in December.

At a $31.6 million annual cost, custodial service represents one of the district’s largest contracts, and is often contentious among board members because of persistent concerns about school cleanliness and worker wages.

The new proposal marks a reversal of the district’s controversial decision in June 2022 to consolidate custodial services for all of its buildings under a four-year contract with a single provider, ServiceMaster Clean. The district signaled this year that it may terminate that contract early, and the board directed the district to solicit new bids in June.

At the time, interim Superintendent Toni Williams said the district had withheld several million dollars of payments to ServiceMaster for not completing deep-cleaning to pandemic-level standards. 

Since then, district officials have reevaluated their rubric for scoring school cleanliness, Williams told the board at a meeting Tuesday. The district also investigated and resolved unnamed “potential conflicts of interest” with the process.   

“No matter what direction we go, we know that that performance evaluation process is flawed, and we need to improve it,” Williams said.

Under the current system, cleaning vendors are assessed by a district employee who visits a school once a month for a review. That process isn’t comprehensive enough, Williams said. It becomes “subjective and inconsistent,” she said, and doesn’t reflect the experiences of school-based staff. 

Williams said the district has suggested that the new process incorporate feedback from principals and teachers who work in the schools, and that the vendors be scored on a compilation of daily reviews. 

Contract violations could come with stricter consequences than the $25 fines ServiceMaster faced last year, Williams said. The district will now have methods for ensuring that each vendor can appropriately staff its assigned school sites.

The vendors would still be required to pay custodians at least $15 an hour. 

The district set the new wage floor last summer when awarding the contract to ServiceMaster, arguing that increased wages would solve staffing issues that led to dirty school buildings.  

ServiceMaster has been a custodial contractor for the district in several of the years since cleaning services were outsourced following the merger between Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools a decade ago. Before last year’s contract, it shared the duties with SKB Facilities & Maintenance, and, before that, with Aramark.

SKB was among five vendors evaluated for the current bidding process and earned the lowest score. Three other applicants were not evaluated because of compliance issues with the bid specifications.

Williams said MSCS has staff to manage the transition to the new vendors and enough funds to ensure that custodial employees can make the switch without losing pay.  

MSCS board members are expected to vote on the proposal at the next board meeting scheduled for Sept. 26 at 5:30 p.m. 

Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.

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