Last spring, custodians contracted to work in Durham Public Schools convinced officials to bring their services in-house, making them school system employees with better pay, better benefits, and more job security.

DPS is preparing to make that transition in less than two works, and for at least a few custodians, it’s been a nail-biting wait to find out if they’ll still have jobs come the end of November. Longtime custodians Deborrah Bailey and Gloria Howard made their case before the Board of Education last week, saying that, as loyal employees, they shouldn’t be left to wonder if they’ll soon be out of work.

“The thirtieth of this month, I will be out of work and won’t even have a place to stay,” Howard told the board between tears, prompting school board member Matt Sears to step down from the dais, put his arm around her, and quietly tell her everything would be all right. School board members then asked a representative to speak to Howard in the hall, and since then, human resources has gotten in contact with her about her employment.

Similarly, since speaking to the board on Thursday, Bailey has been recommended for her old job at the Bacon Street central services building, a position she’s held for most of the ten years she had been contracted by Service Solutions.

But the whole process left Howard, Bailey, and others questioning why they had to wait so long to learn if they had jobs. Bailey, who was a vocal proponent of bringing custodial services in-house and who served on a three-member transition committee, wondered whether her advocacy had something to do with it, but said if speaking up on behalf of others meant losing her job, so be it. Despite her role organizing the school custodians, it was the first time she had said publicly that her employment was unsure.

“I just turned sixty-five. I can go home,” she said.

Howard questioned whether favoritism was the reason she wasn’t immediately recommended for a job she’s held for fourteen years. Prior to being told a few weeks ago that she was being “put out the building” at Githens Middle School, Howard says her hours had been changed, leaving her less time than other custodians had to clean their classrooms. She missed three days of work until the principal helped her get a job picking up trash at Hillside High School, and made sure she was paid for the days she was without work.

Howard told the board that teachers at Githens Middle School, where she cleaned for the past two and a half years, even signed a petition that she be able to stay at the school. Githens principal Crystal Isom-Adu told the INDY she wasn’t aware of a petition, but said Howard “does an outstanding job” and staffers are extremely supportive of her.

“I should have been one of the first hired,” Howard told the school board.

Arasi Adkins, assistant superintendent over human resources, told the board after Howard’s and Bailey’s remarks that “these stories are certainly the exception.”

“Durham Public Schools is proud to have rapidly invested in ending outside contracting of our custodial services and filling each position with a DPS employee,” the school system said in a statement. “We have retained 100 percent of our current DPS custodians as DPS employees, and have hired 97 percent—194 out of 200—of our contracted-service custodians. These numbers speak for themselves. We categorically reject any allegation of retaliation against employees or contract employees for sharing their thoughts about the process of bringing custodial services in-house.”

With the December 3 deadline to have all custodial employees in place, these figures are changing regularly. Overall, the school system will hire about 270 custodians, as well as lead custodians and supervisors.

The thirty-one custodians employed by Durham schools will retain their jobs through the transition. According to Adkins, of those thirty-one, thirteen were lead custodians, and eighteen held regular custodian positions. Ten of thirteen lead custodians kept their same jobs. One was promoted to a custodial supervisor position, and two were demoted to custodian.

Update: Since this article was published, Gloria Howard has been recommended to retain her job at Githens.

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