Unions that represent Metro school custodians and bus drivers are blasting cuts outlined in the district’s new budget proposal, arguing the plan unfairly burdens hundreds of employees who already earn low-to-modest incomes.
In a move to protect classroom teachers, Director of Schools Jesse Register has unveiled a $633 million budget  for the next fiscal year that would outsource the district’s custodial services, and reduce the length of workdays for bus drivers from eight to seven hours.
These measures, along with slashing 24 positions within the district’s central office, are the most significant steps aimed at easing a projected $35 million budget shortfall.
News of the cuts immediately disappointed leaders of Nashville’s Service Employees International Union, which backs more than 600 school custodians, and the local United Steelworkers union, which represents the district’s 825 bus drivers. Representatives of both groups are expected to come out in full force at Tuesday’s board meeting, as well as at a public hearing on the budget set for Thursday.
Under the outsourcing approach, Register has made clear custodians currently employed by MNPS would receive first dibs on retaining their positions, maintaining the method would actually allow for more custodians to work inside schools.
Nonetheless, Mark Naccarato of Nashville’s SEIU described the reaction among custodians as “livid.”
“Here’s the danger,” Naccarato said. “They could hire folks back, but then you’ve got to look at stuff like favoritism and whether these folks are going to get a fair shake. This could be an opportunity for a lot of supervisors and principals to get rid of people who they don’t like.”
Just as worrisome, Naccarato said are uncertainties about employee health insurance, benefits and pensions for custodians contracted by a private company, along with their salaries, which he said he expects would decrease.
“We don’t know,” he said. “That’s just a big question mark.”
Metro schools, Naccarato said, briefly outsourced custodial labor in the early-1990s, but overhauled the plan after discovering the contracted custodians produced unsatisfactory work. In some cases, he said, contractors even stole from classrooms.
“Privatization and outsourcing is kind of a trend that’s over now,” Naccarato said. “There’s reams of data that says privatization and outsourcing is not the way to go.”
Reaction has been no less candid from Mary Eady, president of the local steelworkers union and a bus driver at Metro schools for 35 years, who pointed out the one-hour deduction from bus drivers’ schedules equates to 10 hours of lost income on their bi-monthly paychecks.
“We’re not happy about it,” Eady said. “I’ve been around for quite awhile. I went through five or six director of schools, and five or six mayors, and never once have the bus drivers been attacked financially as they have this year. We cannot live on these wages.”
Eady said a majority of Metro’s bus drivers are single parents. Though salaries vary according to experience, one driver calculated her deduction would take $3,400 from her annual income. If the budget is approved, Eady said several senior drivers would likely retire.
“It’s not fair to us. It should be across the board,” Eady said of the cuts. “With the economy, it’s hurting us like it is the administrators. Why does the lowest paid employee have to take the brunt of the blow?”
Register has called the transportation cuts “tough,” but said the district is paying for eight hours of daily service when bus drivers actually work for less than seven hours. “We think it’s only fair to tighten up there,” he said.
Eady categorically rejected Register’s math.
“It’s easy to sit up there behind a desk and say we don’t do the hours that we actually do,” she said. “The bus drivers can justify the eighth hour, and we plan on doing that, because we do so many things after our routes are completed that we don’t get paid for.”