We all remember our school janitor, or, at least, his caricature — an older, balding gentleman, dragging a mop and bucket behind him, keys to every door in the building jangling on an oversized key ring. But he knew everything about cleaning, and also maintenance, and everyone knew his name, because he had been there forever.

If there were building service contractors in the school, they were there to wash the windows or refinish the gym floor — not to clean.

But, in the last few decades, cleaning needs in schools have changed. At the elementary and secondary level, renewed focus on student test scores means less money will be available for housekeeping. Public colleges are facing reduced state funding; private colleges are reporting weak donations; all educational institutions contend with increasing expenses for health insurance, fuel and security. These schools increasingly are turning to BSCs, as contractors almost always can provide lower-cost service than an in-house department.

“Education is probably the biggest market that BSCs are not fully involved in,” says Ron Goerne. CBSE, CEO of Service Resource and co-founder of 1-2-3 Training Systems in Bloomington, Ill.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, in the 2001-2002 school year, there were 125,532 educational institutions in the United States. This includes 121,335 elementary and secondary (K-12) schools (94,112 public and 27,223 private) and 4,197 colleges and universities, including 1,710 two-year and 2,487 four-year campuses.

Although many schools still use in-house cleaning labor, the percentage shifting to contractors is increasing every year. Over the last several years, many large school districts, including Detroit, Boston and Chicago, have outsourced some or all of their cleaning; and, according to a 2002 survey of college and university business officers by UNICCO Service Co., Newton, Mass., 25 percent of those facilities outsourced their cleaning — but only 16 percent of those who didn’t would not consider it at all.

This represents an ample opportunity for cleaning contractors willing to put up with budget pressures and the quirks of working in a busy environment, full of children or young adults.

What customers want
In some ways, bidding on an educational facility is similar to bidding on a commercial office building. For instance, when looking for a new contractor, I. Aldape Jr., director of custodial operations for Texas State university in San Marcos, wants to be sure the BSC is: qualified to do the job; has a verifiable work history in the same types of facilities; and has the staff, management, equipment and resources to back up their operations. And, Aldape’s not always satisfied with the bids that do come in.

“A couple of years ago, I was asked to contract out a multi-function academic building, as well as submit a bid on what it would cost to clean the building in-house,” Aldape says. The verdict? Aldape’s in-house staff could do it cheaper and better.

“It is sometimes tough to get that first educational account, and you have to be diligent to keep that account,” points out Sonya Busby, president of Buzz Building Maintenance in Wichita, Kan. “Standards are pretty high.”

To get that first account, Bill Friske, CBSE, president of Friske Building Maintenance Co. in Livonia, Mich., recommends contacting area schools and universities to get on their bidder’s list. When they have a contract to offer, you’ll be notified and likely taken on a big group walk-through.

“It takes a lot of legwork, but I find they don’t usually require a lot of information when you get down to the actual bid,” Friske says. “They just want you to answer their questions — fill-in-the-blank proposals do better than thick ones.”

Overwhelmingly, he says, the questions focus on price, especially in the K-12 market.

“Budgets are small, so it’s tough to give quality service,” he says. “I think a start-up company with low overhead might do better.”

In fact, in some areas, small contractors have a leg up on their larger competitors, because they’re more likely to be residents of the community and know the people in charge of the contracts.

“In our area, the parochial schools first look to see if there are any parishioners that own cleaning companies, and so we were one of the parishioners to bid on it, out of about six others,” says Busby.

Cutting costs
Once contractors land a new educational account, they may need to think beyond their bid packages to find ways to keep costs in check.

For instance, Goerne suggests BSCs take a look at the facility’s recycling program as a place to cut costs, or bring in revenue by selling recyclable materials.

“The percentage of schools with a comprehensive recycling program is next to none,” Goerne points out. “It’s one of the biggest potential places for cost savings. There also are programs available, through many states, to help teach recycling in the classroom.”

Many contractors also are turning to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Existing Buildings standard, for ways to improve recycling and indoor air quality in their schools in a cost-effective manner, Goerne adds.

Cooperative cleaning is another way for school cleaners to save labor, and thus money, Goerne adds. For example, if students are taught to pick up the areas around them before they leave, or place the trash can outside the room for easy pickup, it’ll save the worker time.

However, cooperative cleaning only is useful if all parties are willing, cautions Michael Busby, director of operations for Buzz.

“In one school, the parents don’t want the kids to do anything that has to do with the cleaning,” he explains. “The other school, they pick up every paper, every pen.”

As with any account, if an educational customer wants more service than their price will allow, the contractor must compromise, says Sonja Busby. For instance, she works with a price-conscious community college.

“In any college, you have deans and other important people walking through all the time. They may see a need to have their carpets cleaned, but it’s not in their budget,” she explains. “So, we might clean the spots and traffic ways. We also do lots of floor scrubbing rather than stripping and waxing.”

A dirty job
Even if they’re willing to work with tight budgets, not every BSC is cut out for the educational market. There are challenges, both business and operational, that are radically different from traditional commercial cleaning accounts.

“Schools are dirtier — you have pens, pencils, spit wads on the ceiling, balls of paper towels [students] got wet and threw on the ceiling,” explains Michael Busby. “And colleges are just as messy. Mom’s not picking up anymore. In fact, colleges can be worse than K-12 — students will do things to the bathrooms that the little kids haven’t figured out yet.”

In addition to picking up student messes, security also is important at educational institutions — parents entrust these institutions to keep their kids safe. This, too, presents challenges for cleaners.

“We’re more than just cleaning here,” says Ron McCombs, night custodian at Fox Creek Elementary in Bloomington, Ill. “With terrorism and crooks, we’ve got to care enough to question a strange person walking around.”

Unfortunately, many contractors pay their cleaners too little for them to be invested in the safety of the children, McCombs says. He advises any BSC working in a school to hire locally, and pay a wage that enables janitors to live in the district in which they serve, so they will have a vested interest in the community.

In spite of all of the challenges, elementary, secondary and higher education facilities represent a growth opportunity for willing BSCs. In addition to financial rewards, contractors can enjoy the satisfaction of knowing they help keep the school environment safe and healthy for the students and their community.

“At the parochial school, parents will see me wiping doorknobs, doing detail work, that they didn’t expect,” Sonya Busby says. “They will come up and say, ‘thank you for a good job.’”

Proceed With Caution
For building service contractors unwilling or unable to give a school or university account their full-time attention, I. Aldape Jr. has two words: don’t try.

Years ago, Aldape, director of custodial operations for Texas State University in San Marcos, contracted out dormitory cleaning. The contractor, a national company, did not have local managers, so they provided only minimal supervision, he explains. The contractor’s employees also stole from the students; the male workers also improperly interacted with female students, Aldape says.

“The contractor refused to listen to the initial complaints we made,” he says “The contractor went so far as to tell me that I was expecting too much from them and that I did not know what I was doing when I wrote the bid specifications. It is ironic, but I was only asking them to do what I expect my staff to do.”

After four months, the students in the dorm gave the administration an ultimatum: get rid of the contractors or else they would call the local media and demonstrate their dissatisfaction by moving out of the dorm and sleep on the grass, Aldape recalls.

“According to the students, it was cleaner to sleep on the grass than in the dorm,” he says. “This got the attention of the administration and within 24 hours, the owner of the contract company came down from out of state.

“As he walked through the dorm his company was servicing and then through the one we were doing in-house (both dorms were identical), he walked off the job, taking all his employees with him. We never heard from the contractor again and when I ran into him at conference, he avoided me like the plague.

“Afterward, we did a massive cleanup just to show the students that the work could be done. But it took me almost six months to bring the dorm back up to our standards.”