Schools Dust-up: Attack on Floor Crud Angers Union, Janitors 

click to enlarge P. Andy Hawkins, chief operating officer for finance and operations at the Richmond Public Schools, shows off the newly cleaned and coated tile floors at Lucille M. Brown Middle School. Photo by Scott Elmquist
  • P. Andy Hawkins, chief operating officer for finance and operations at the Richmond Public Schools, shows off the newly cleaned and coated tile floors at Lucille M. Brown Middle School. Photo by Scott Elmquist

The Richmond Public Schools are paying a private company hundreds of thousands of dollars to turn school floors from grimy to shiny.

The school system is trying a new solution to prevent the pervasive buildup of crud on school floors, while reducing the need for chemical cleaners and cutting the number of school custodians.

Some are skeptical of the cost and the need for the so-called “green clean” project. Richmond Education Association President Angela M. Dews asks why a private company is needed to do the work that custodians do: “If there was a problem, what was done to solve the problem before now?”

In a pilot program going on in four schools, a company called Energy Solutions is steam cleaning floors to remove old grime, then covering them with a dirt-resistant siloxane coating. “It crystallizes and basically forms an impenetrable seal,” Energy Solutions owner Jim Ailor says.

The school system is paying $395,000 for the cleaning and coating in the four schools and paying Energy Solutions to provide custodial staff for daily floor care. The coated floors remove the need for deep annual cleanings, says P. Andy Hawkins, chief operating officer for finance and operations with the Richmond Public Schools. The private custodians use dust mops and damp mops daily to keep them clean.

Beige tile gleams in the central corridor of Lucille M. Brown Middle School on Jahnke Road, one of the schools in the pilot program. Before the cleaning, “this school was a disgrace,” Hawkins says.

In the long run, the siloxane coating should save money — up to $248,000 in the next five years, Hawkins says. The savings will come mainly from employing fewer custodians, he says, but none will be laid off. Instead, positions will be reduced through attrition and transfers.

Richmond Education Association President Dews questions what administrators did to try to help custodians solve the grime problem at the pilot schools. It seems that custodial staff could have been trained to do the coating and steam cleaning themselves, she says, if given the right equipment. And custodians do more than just mop, she adds: “They are a part of the faculty and staff, of what brings the school together.”

Richmond School Board member Kimberly Gray, who represents the north-central 2nd District, notes that the school system has paid Energy Solutions around $700,000 to date for not only the pilot project, but also for floor cleaning and coating in 21 schools — including Huguenot High School, which will be replaced by a new building in 2014. 

Meanwhile, the board was forced to cut funding for athletics, arts, music and foreign language classes in its last budget, Gray says. “Is this the best use of our public funds?” she asks.

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