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Cleaning Up After Mr. Gingrich

Cleaning Up After Mr. Gingrich
By Dave Arnold

When I was 12 years old I went to work for my neighbor at 50 cents per hour. I’d walk a mile to his house, and start work at 6 AM driving a tractor in his fields until midnight, six days per week. That was a long time ago, and probably a violation of the law. Big questions of legalities weren’t asked. It wasn’t unheard of that some people believed it better to put a child’s life in a dangerous work environment than to pay out a reasonable salary to a skilled adult.

Unfortunately, in some lines of work, it still isn’t. And that’s disturbing. Even more disturbing is having someone seeking to get elected to a national office make the issue a serious point in his campaign.

Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich calls for a repeal of Child Labor Laws, reckoning we could save money in schools by replacing the custodians with students. Oh, he’d have an adult or two to do the dangerous stuff, but the kids could do the rest. It sounds like one big idea to him with no rhyme or reasoning about such things as time out of learning, insurance risks and oh — what do we do with the adults tossed out of a job?

I believe most lawmakers and citizens are smart enough not to mess with the current Child Labor laws. What I’ll do is clarify some facts for Mr. Gingrich and others who have no clue about the work of school custodians.

There are some people who still think of custodians as only doing the sweeping and mopping. My job would be boring if that was all that was required of me. In a few months, I will have been a custodian for thirty years and there has never been such thing as a normal day. I’ve talked to enough brothers and sisters around the country who do this work and they think the same. Uninformed folk, and Mr. Gingrich, are unlikely aware, for one thing, of the job hazards custodians face — particularly with the chemicals and equipment they work with every day. That’s a money and liability question I would have thought he’d consider.

Just so he, and others, get the full picture, here are a few of the things I and others in this field of work are required to do:

  • Unlock the building at morning and be sure that it is locked and secure at the end of the school day;
  • Maintain the heat and air conditioning equipment. Monitor the controls, thermostats, and change the filters;
  • Sweep, scrub, and buff the hallways and hard surface floors;
  • Clean, mop, and disinfect all restrooms;
  • Maintain, repair, or install any electrical circuitry, fixture, or appliance;
  • Maintain, repair or install any plumbing as the need arises;
  • Maintain, repair, or remove asbestos pipe insulation or flooring as needed;
  • Maintain  the school lawn, ball fields, athletic track, and remove snow and ice from driveways,  parking lots, and sidewalks;
  • Repair any school fixtures, equipment, and vehicles as needed;
  • Painting of classrooms, hallways, offices, and gymnasiums;
  • Maintain Material Safety Data list, inventory and ordering of supplies.

I wrote these duties down to remind myself that this is a complex job. I take the duties for granted, but I darn well know that I need to keep up on every piece of equipment and know every inch of the school site. I take pride in my work. More than that, there are a lot of people counting on me. I am responsible for their safety and good health. I am accountable to make sure the buildings don’t fall apart. I’m a steward of the tax-payer’s money and investment. That’s a lot to think about. But I’m not done.

I’m not against students learning responsibility and getting some work experience. Mr. Gingrich is probably not aware that many school districts already have students doing supervised custodial work. My school district in Illinois and others have students training under the supervision of their custodians through the Secondary Transitional Experience Program (STEP). STEP is designed to provide supervised work experience for high school students with disabilities. Emphasis is placed on developing appropriate work-related habits, attitudes, and on acquiring marketable work skills. STEP provides an opportunity for students to experience guided on-the-job training while working toward a diploma.

To participate in this school-to-work program, a student must be age 16 (generally, a junior or senior in high school) and identified as having a disabling condition that would create a barrier toward future employment. I have lost count of how many students I have supervised in the course of my employment, but no less than one per year for my nearly 30 years.

Supervising student in the STEP program is just one of the things not required of a custodian, but they do because they care about the students.

All staff take pride in their jobs. I don’t know how many times I have heard fellow custodians, or other ESPs, refer to their place of employment as “Their school” because of that pride in their work and the people they touch.

I’ll end with a referral to these three links featuring three colleagues who are head custodians at schools in Pueblo, Co. They talk about the difference they make at their schools.

I don’t know if Mr. Gingrich or anyone else trying to diminish our work will see these videos, but you can share them with your colleagues and neighbors — and tell them your story and what you do for the students and fellow employees in your schools.

Videos: Pueblo, Colorado Veteran Employees Speak on Outsourcing

11 Year Veteran Custodian Speaks Outsourcing Drawbacks

31 Year Veteran Custodian Speaks Outsourcing Drawbacks 

22 Year Veteran Facility Caretaker Speaks Outsourcing Drawbacks

Dave Arnold:This school custodian and former Illinois Education Association ESP of the Year is a published poet. He works in Brownstown Community School District # 201. But most Association members know him best from the editorials he has written for various NEA media properties since 2001.


Dave's View has been discontinued following the retirement of its author, Dave Arnold. Even though new columns will not be posted, we encourage you to review past columns.