For nearly 20 years, Sharena Hollins has mopped hallways, wiped tables and cleaned up after students as a custodian in Alexandria City Public Schools. She’s also watched kindergartners grow into teenagers, made sure hungry students are fed and helped students through challenges at home.
Hollins, who works at T.C. Williams High School’s Minnie Howard Campus, said custodians treat students “just like they belong to us.”
But Hollins has been racked with uncertainty since Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. released a budget proposal earlier this year that included a plan to eliminate 30 custodian positions by outsourcing the jobs to a private company. Over the past several months, Hollins and other custodians have protested the proposed cuts to city school officials during nighttime meetings, often sacrificing breaks to plead for their jobs.
Not all members of the Alexandria City School Board supported the plan to outsource the positions. The proposal sparked blowback from the Education Association of Alexandria, an alliance of educators that has led a campaign to keep the custodians. And the city’s Democratic Committee issued a resolution last month calling on the school system to spare the jobs.
Opponents have pointed out that the plan would affect a group of predominantly black and Hispanic employees who are paid some of the lowest wages in the school system.
Hutchings appeared to relent under pressure, issuing a proposal Thursday that would allow custodians who have worked for the school system at least five years to keep their positions next school year. Those who have been in the school district for 20 years were already told they could stay.
“I’ve been listening for three months,” Hutchings said. “Our custodians are important to us, and we wanted to make sure that we were doing everything within our power to be respectful.”
Under the proposal, which must be approved by the school board, 10 custodians stand to lose their jobs. Dawn D. Lucas, president of the Education Association of Alexandria, said Friday that the plan was a “step in the right direction” but that she wanted to see it in writing and talk with the employees who would be affected.
Alexandria City Public Schools decided in 2007 to privatize the custodian workforce but promised to achieve that by attrition, replacing workers who retire or leave the school system with private employees. However, that plan was not executed across the school system, which kept hiring custodians while also contracting with two outside companies.
In 2017, an audit recommended the school system move forward with its plan to fully outsource custodial operations through attrition. In January, Hutchings released a budget proposal that eliminated the positions, citing the audit and a need for efficiency in maintaining school buildings.
Hutchings has said he is confident the school system would be able to find a contractor that would hire all of the custodians, pay at least $15 an hour and provide benefits. The school district has offered a severance package that would give custodians $1,500 for each year they’ve worked, and it encouraged the workers to apply for other roles, such as paraprofessionals or bus drivers.
The Alexandria City School Board voted 6 to 3 in February to support budget plans that included outsourcing the custodian positions. One member who voted against it, Michelle Rief, said she did not support eliminating the jobs.
“These custodians are employees of our school system. They’re invested in our schools. They’re a part of our team,” she said. “It’s wrong to balance the budget on the backs of some of our lowest-paid employees.”
Custodians argue there’s no guarantee a contractor will provide the pay and benefits Hutchings has described. Most of the 30 custodians earn $17.70 an hour or more and fear losing their current health insurance and retirement benefits, according to the Education Association of Alexandria. Several of the workers said the outsourcing plan has eroded the sense of stability they expected a job in the school system would provide.
Hollins said she has lost sleep worrying about her family’s future.
“You have got to hold on to your dollars because you don’t know when they’re going to call it quits,” said Hollins, who has worked 12-hour shifts recently because her school is understaffed.
Her 24-year-old daughter, Shaliyah Hollins, said she relies on her mother’s health insurance to cover dialysis and infusions needed to treat a condition that affects her blood. Shaliyah Hollins told the Alexandria City School Board during a Thursday meeting that she fell ill shortly after graduating from high school in 2013. She was prescribed pain medication and antibiotics but stopped visiting the hospital “because I felt like I wasn’t getting the proper help because I didn’t have health insurance.”
But she was able to undergo additional tests after she was put on her mother’s insurance plan, which found a blood clot and infection.
“Without my mother’s insurance, I don’t know what kind of shape I would be in,” Shaliyah Hollins said. “It scares me that I could lose it in the blink of an eye. I’m so thankful for my mom. She’s my motivation to keep fighting. . . . Know that your decision affects not only my mom, but me.”
Jamar Hines, 40, said he has two sons with asthma and relies on his health insurance for their medication. Hines, who works at Francis C. Hammond Middle School, said he was disappointed by the superintendent’s proposal and expected better treatment from Hutchings, an Alexandria native who Hines said attended the same school he did.
“It’s unhealthy for us when you’ve got to come to work, always constantly thinking about what’s next . . . and still try to perform at your best,” he said.