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Cleaning Up

Memphis City Schools board votes to bring maintenance services in-house.

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With a final round of seven "aye" votes at a special Monday night meeting, the Memphis City Schools board settled the disputed question of maintenance service for its 191 facilities.

The board voted to bring maintenance services in-house under the jurisdiction of human-resources director Michael Goar and maintenance director Zeno Williams. "It will be a rough road for us to assume that responsibility," said Goar. "There will be a need for additional resources in staff and so forth, but the employees are ready to step up if given the opportunity."

For the last 12 years, facilities maintenance has been contracted to the Aramark company. A facilities-maintenance report detailing excessive overtime costs, employee complaints, and higher than average bid prices all played a role in the severing of Aramark's contract. Aramark's corporate office issued a brief statement saying only that the company has been "delighted" to serve MCS.

Aramark bid $3.3 million to renew its contract but was underbid by the Trammell Crow company, which offered to do the job for $2.7 million. But the board and Trammell Crow could not agree on cost caps. As Aramark's June 30th contract-termination date neared, the board and administration went round and round with Trammell Crow — and with each other. An off-handed admonition from one board member for the district to have a backup plan hit home, and the board began to look into bringing the work in-house.

"We [custodial employees] had always felt that it was a slap in the face when Aramark was brought in," said 21-year district employee James Fleming. "We were the ones doing the work anyway. They were just giving orders."

Co-worker Martha Denman agreed. Denman, a building engineer, has worked for the district for nearly 28 years. "It was time for a change," she said. "If the board didn't give this to us, we were ready for a fight."

During negotiations, Lavon Alston, the MCS staff member responsible for the transition to in-house services, resigned, leaving behind angry school board members and unanswered questions. "I know people may question why this is the board's business," said President Wanda Halbert. "But anything that affects the children of this district is our business."

Goar estimates that bringing services in-house will cost the district about $2.5 million this year and $1.2 million next year. Savings for the second year are based on lower overhead and a drop in equipment costs.

"Aramark brought to the table customer service, classes, and training," said Williams. "Prior to their coming here, we were not recognized as a group or appreciated for our work. I can't speak for all departments, but for custodial, the services could have been brought back in-house four years ago."

But even with the potential savings, some board members were still unsure about the plan. "We will be watching," board member Deni Hirsh told Williams and his managers.

"I understand their concerns, but the employees have pride in their work and are going to prove it," said Williams. "You're always going to have that percentage of no-goods, but at least 93 percent of my people are good people. I look at it as my task to work on the other 7 percent. Most of us have been here at least 10 to 15 years, and no one knows our jobs better than us."

The in-house staff is charged with completing its initial work by August 8th, a week before students return to school. 

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