Polito says having in-house staff, with changes, will save more than outsourcing, which state forced district to review.

The Erie School District's foray into privatizing janitorial services is headed to a conclusion that Erie schools Superintendent Brian Polito said he wanted all along.

The district's approximately 85 maintenance employees are almost certain to stay in-house rather than have their jobs outsourced to a private firm.

And as part of the deal, the Erie School District will save money — about $1 million a year, according to the preliminary 2020-21 budget that Polito presented to the Erie School Board on Wednesday.

The preliminary budget includes no outsourcing of janitorial services, which the district for the past several months has been exploring as part of a directive in its state-mandated financial improvement plan.

In an interview, Polito said he could not comment on specifics because negotiations with the two affected labor unions are ongoing, but he said the district's plan is to keep the maintenance personnel as district employees with restructured staffing.

He said the 11,000-student district, which has 16 school buildings, will save the $1 million year through restructuring, retirements and other changes.

“I still feel strongly that, where we are headed, we can save more than if we outsourced the jobs,” Polito said.

The district accepted requests for proposals for outsourcing in January, but a planned rebid has never happened after the initial bids came in higher than anticipated. Polito throughout the process said he preferred to keep the maintenance workers as district employees if the district could make changes to save more money than it would by outsourcing.

The move to keep the employees in-house will affect about 63 custodians; 16 building engineers or boiler tenders, who also act as custodial supervisors; and six firemen, or building engineers who work second shift.

The engineers and firemen, as well as bus drivers, are in the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 95. One of the local's stewards, Justin Brasington, said he is pleased with how negotiations are headed.

“We are saving a lot of jobs in the Erie School District and still continue to move forward to be an essential part of the school district,” Brasington said.

The Local 95 a year ago adjusted its pay scale for new employees and also gave up overtime to help reduce costs and increase the possibility that the Local 95's maintenance jobs would not be outsourced. The financial improvement plan required the district to explore those changes with the Local 95.

“We have taken a lot of concessions so we can continue to do our jobs and help,” Brasington said.

The Erie School District custodians are members of the Local 1968 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. The Local 1968's president, Clint Southworth, could not be reached for comment, but he said in a previous interview that the he was confident the custodians would remain district employees once the district analyzed the costs associated with outsourcing.

The Erie School Board is expected to review any in-house proposal, and the state Department of Education would also have to approve. Department officials have been overseeing the district's financial improvement plan since February, upon the departure of the district's state-appointed financial administrator, Charles Zogby. The state has not named a successor.

Polito said he has been consulting on the custodian plan with the Philadelphia-based Public Finance Management, the Erie School District's state-appointed financial adviser. He said current estimates show the district would save $600,000 to $950,000 a year by outsourcing, or less than the $1 million that the district is projecting to save by keeping the jobs in-house.

“The savings is based on adjusting our staffing structure to what is recommended by PFM,” Polito said.

Under the district's financial improvement plan, the district administration must explore outsourcing as a way to save money, with the School Board scheduled to vote on any proposal on May 13, the same day it must vote on the preliminary 2019-20 budget in advance of passing the final budget by June 30. The district must follow the financial improvement plan as a condition for it receiving, starting in 2018, an additional $14 million in annual state aid to stay solvent.

As it abided by the financial-improvement plan, the school district sought the requests for proposals on the outsourcing, and received the two in January. The low bidder was ABM Industries Inc. The other bid came from Metz Environmental Services of Dallas, Pennsylvania, near Wilkes-Barre.

The Erie School District had planned to do a rebid because of concerns with how ABM and Metz addressed staffing.

In February, Polito said said the new request for proposals would be more specific in how the bidders should classify the district's current building engineers and firemen, who both act as custodial supervisors.

The bids that the district received in January did not integrate the building engineers and firemen into the custodial plan in a way that would best allow the district to determine the potential savings through outsourcing, Polito said at the time. The rebid never happened.

Though the outsourcing is not likely to occur, the financial improvement plan did its job with regard to building maintenance. The plan pushed the Erie School Board to at least consider trimming or outsourcing custodial staff — two options the board had resisted for years, even during other periods of financial distress.

Even if the district were still considering outsourcing, it would be unable to lay off its maintenance staff at the moment, after Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday ordered schools statewide closed for the rest of the academic year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The emergency school bill passed in Harrisburg in March prohibits public school districts from laying off or cutting the pay of district employees during the shutdown.

In the Erie School District, building engineers and firemen are still in the buildings during the shutdown, said Brasington, the president of the Local 95. Custodians were cleaning the buildings after the initial shutdown that started with Wolf's order on March 13, but had to leave the buildings after Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper issued a stay-at-home order on March 24, the Erie School District said. Wolf later that day expanded a state stay-at-home order to include Erie County.

Since March 24, district custodians have been taking online courses related to cleaning buildings once they reopen, the district said. The staff must follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Contact Ed Palattella at epalattella@timesnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.