The foot traffic can be six times greater than in an office building. The occupants often are there just because they’re required to be there. Safety issues range from slipping on spilled soda to the threat of firearms, intruders and escapees.

We’re talking about schools, an area of tremendous opportunity for building service contractors, if they’re willing to take on the challenges associated with this market. One of the biggest challenges is getting some schools to consider full or partial cleaning outsourcing.

There are probably several reasons for this apprehension, according to Gloria Navales, president of A-Plus Services of San Antonio, Texas. One is continuity of employment. Building service contracts usually are annual, whereas schools like to have long-term relationships with their employees. Navales also feels that school administrators believe they need total control over their budgets in order to be flexible in planning their periodic work. And some schools worry about the quality of work.

However, outsourcing is growing, according to Ed Lynch, district manager for Varsity Contractors for the state of Arizona. “One of the things we’re seeing is that school districts are splitting the contract between two contractors. School districts are a little uncertain about outsourcing maintenance, so if one contractor can’t perform, the district just can bring the other one in without re-bidding the contract,” he says.

Contractors’ nighttime presence in schools is one thing that differentiates them from in-house staff. “We end up being security guards at the schools. Our people work after the school day ends, whereas in-house custodians are there during regular school hours. We turn off lights and equipment accidentally left on. We’re there when the water heater breaks. And we’re there during after-hours school activities. This is definitely a marketing tool for us,” he says.
In school settings, teamwork is critical. Many schools do what they can to make the cleaning staff feel part of the family. “We do what we can to make our staff feel part of the team. We educate them about the importance of cleaning for heath, so that we keep kids healthy and in school,” Craig Finley, custodial supervisor for the Longview, Texas, school district.

Because custodians are part of the team, they sometimes have to pitch in unexpectedly. In one school, two custodians helped a teacher control a fire started by a student. The fire did only $27,000 worth of damage because the workers helped contain it, even though they didn’t have to help.

Other safety concerns also move well beyond cleaning. One BSC incorporated “lockdown” procedures into its training protocol to accommodate more frequent safety situations in schools it services. At the Hopkins Minnesota School district, Larry Lutz, Director of Buildings and Grounds, says school violence is one of the topics in the district’s disaster manual. “Each of our school sites has an emergency response team, and there’s a custodian on every team,” Lutz says.

On the flip side, custodians do receive some assistance from students to make their jobs easier. Lutz says they incorporated a practice suggested by the custodial workers: They ask the students to stack their chairs on their desks at the end of the day.

“Theoretically, all of the chairs throughout the school are stacked in five seconds,” says Lutz. “Compare this to each worker having to stack 25 chairs per room throughout the 20 rooms they clean. The amount of time saved allows the staff to divert their attention to other things. It also teaches students ethics, responsibility and teamwork, and doesn’t detract from the educational process.”

Finally, an interesting example of custodial workers pitching in to help out in uncharted waters: Americans with Disabilities Act requirements at one school requires low-level door handles, but two- and three-year olds could open them and escape from their designated rooms. The custodians usually were the ones to rescue the escapees, and return them to their classrooms until the school could find different handles.

Gretchen Roufs, a 15-year janitorial supply veteran, owns Auxiliary Marketing Services of San Antonio.