Slow Boil

VOUCHERS, TAX CREDITS, desegregation, and the future of janitorial responsibilities--the ideological battle surrounding education reform comes in all shapes and sizes.

There were no banner headlines recently when the state Department of Boiler Inspections changed its rules concerning the frequency with which "low-pressure" boilers must be inspected. Up until recently, the boilers had to be checked daily. Now that they need only sporadic inspecting, Twin Cities public-school custodians--referred to these days as operating engineers--fear that the rule change will give metro-area school boards a long-sought opening to pare the size of their maintenance teams, if not privatize them altogether.

In addition to making rules about furnaces, state bureaucrats have long handled a lot of the minutiae involved in running public schools. But increasingly, under the mantle of decentralization, the state is asking local school boards to take on decisions school employees contend they're not qualified to make, such as how often to inspect boilers. The state, meanwhile, is reserving its energy for classroom decision making. The custodians say they don't have a problem with state involvement in crafting new, more stringent requirements for teachers and curriculum. They're just worried that maintenance and security will go by the wayside.

A recent public hearing on the rule change was packed with operating engineers and labor leaders recounting tales of serious accidents. Without the previously mandated daily check of the boilers, accidents will be even more likely to occur, they argued. And once the issue is out of state hands and is made part of the agenda of cash-strapped local school boards, they fear the daily checks, which require custodians to work weekends, will be eclipsed by higher-profile classroom issues.

"With the old rule, maintenance was black and white. Now it's up for debate," says Shane Allers, of an SEIU local representing suburban public-school workers. "[School boards] will cut corners in places like the boiler room." He says that in addition to trying to defend basic maintenance, public-school workers are battling the trend toward privatization. "General cleaning, maintenance of electrical and heating systems, etc., are being privately contracted."

At the same time, public-school buildings are seeing increased use. Evening and weekend programs at Dayton's Bluff Elementary in St. Paul, for example, include a family literacy program for parents and children, as well as mediation and dispute-resolution training. While school boards and communities may support the increased use of public schools, most don't budget for an extra custodian to monitor the halls at night or on the weekends. In addition to maintenance issues like boiler checks, this squeeze threatens to cause security problems, say the custodians. While it used to be the responsibility of a single janitor to monitor who did what on school grounds after hours, in some schools volunteers now wield the keys.

The end result is that the janitors are just the latest low-visibility sector of the state's educational infrastructure to fall through the cracks. While rules concerning maintenance and security issues are being undone across the spectrum, says Jill Kielblock, business manager for AFSCME Council 14, when it comes to people who have any sort of direct contact with kids--even clerical and technical workers--the trend is going the other way. "There's a (state) movement that's just beginning to increase regulations," she says. "The focus is all on who has direct contact with the kids." For example, Kielblock offers, if a school seeks reimbursement for an interpreter for the hearing impaired, the interpreter must meet new licensing requirements. In the past, schools occasionally employed the parents of hearing-impaired children to interpret.

With so many new classroom reforms to fulfill, school boards are looking for places to cut spending and furnace checks are an easy target that no one's likely to notice, the custodians fear. And when the subject does come up, it's easily dismissed, as it was at the state hearings, as the protectionist reaction of a besieged labor union.

Worse, they fear that boiler inspections are only the first casualty that will result from the collision of two of Gov. Arne Carlson's chief political agenda items: The governor is pushing state regulatory agencies to slash the number of rules on their books even as he is pushing for better performance from public schools he'd like to see more closely regulated under his highly visible education reform. The boiler-maintenance rule was cut because it was burdensome to private business, they say, not because boilers suddenly became safe.

Although the loosened inspection rules went into effect last week, school boards aren't likely to begin making decisions about their own safety standards until the weather changes and furnaces are fired up. "There's a general push to say that public education is too expensive," says Allers. "But if we cut public maintenance and food service, the buildings just fall apart."

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