BURLEY — The Cassia County School District’s plan to outsource custodians and maintenance workers is retaliation against workers who reported improper chemical storage at the district’s maintenance shop, some employees say.
The district, however, says there is no connection between the whistleblowing and the proposal to contract with ABM Industries for maintenance.
Now, about 40 district maintenance employees have signed a union grievance protesting the plan and filed it with the Idaho Education Association, the union representing teachers and other school employees. The topic will be discussed at the Thursday Cassia County School Board meeting.
“In part, I believe it was retaliation after a coworker and I reported questionable chemical storage and dumping,” said Tim Fisher, a school district carpenter.
Fisher said an employee in charge of chemicals and safety at the district was dumping diesel mixed with other chemicals behind the district’s shop south of the Mini-Cassia jail on 15th Street. Improperly disposed chemicals were in garbage cans and stacked in offices, he said.
The same employee overseeing chemicals also instructed another employee “to throw away radioactive exit signs a few at a time,” Fisher said. The signs have special storage and disposal rules and there were at least 100 signs at the shop. Fisher said the employee also had “a big vial of mercury” wrapped in garbage bags and leaning against a heater in his office. The vial contained a large amount of unsealed mercury that came from a thermostat.
Fisher and the other employee scheduled a May 13 meeting with school Superintendent Jim Shank and Assistant Superintendent Sandra Miller. During the meeting, Fisher provided district officials with photos, video and documentation of the chemical violations.
“Afterwards, Shank said he was very concerned and would take care of it,” Fisher said.
Immediately after the meeting, the school district began cleaning the shop.
Fisher said he began documenting the improper chemical handling and disposal in August 2017.
“I’ve been trying to get them to take this seriously for years,” he said.
But the district says the incident in the shop has nothing to do with outsourcing custodial staff.
“To make a connection between conversations about changing operational aspects of our district and a single safe workplace incident is simply not true,” Shank wrote in a Tuesday statement to the Times-News. “The board has discussed more efficient facility management for years. There is no retaliation or connection between these two separate issues. There is no evidence to support this claim. In fact, the timelines show the contrary. The complaint was addressed. The board will discuss possible operational changes on June 20.”
The grievance filed June 7 through the Idaho Education Association claims the contract issue was discussed during a special board meeting on May 6, but the item was not on the meeting agenda nor reflected in the minutes, there was no discussion or vote held in open session and the district did not notify the public that the discussion was going to take place.
The issue first came to light on May 31, when the school district sent an announcement to the Times-News that it was moving toward privatization of the services, and a contract would likely be finalized during a June 20 meeting. The release also said the board declared a financial emergency during a May 6 special board meeting.
The district then sent a corrected statement June 14 signed by Shank. The retraction says the first email contained errors implying the district had already contracted with ABM and services would begin July 1. The correction says no financial emergency was declared.
“The confusion about a financial emergency may come from the fact that the district, in good faith, amended its agenda on April 18, 2019, to include contract facility services as an agenda item to seek an RFP (request for proposal). By law the agenda can only be amended if an emergency is declared with the justification reflected in the minutes,” the correction said.
The reason stated for the amendment was “needed emergency monies” related to the recent bond failure.
The corrected statement by Shank said the district is only in the proposal stage of the process and it is the district’s intentions to carefully review any proposals and how they may or may not impact the district’s operations and employees.
The district previously said employees will have the opportunity to transfer to ABM with comparable salary and benefits.
For district employees, Fisher said, the switch to privatized services could have a major impact on their jobs and their lives. It could affect employee pay, health insurance, retirement benefits and the employee’s ability to participate in PERSI, which is the state’s government employee retirement.
“There’s a lot on the line for a lot of people if the district switches,” Fisher said. “What everyone is missing is that for a lot of the employees this is not just a job. It’s their career, their retirement plan. It’s everything to them.”