A famous children's book artist, Mary Engelbreit, once said, "Don't look back — you're not going that way." The quote has become a mantra in schools across the country and it's a mindset facility cleaning executives embrace as they close out one school year and prepare for the next.  

It might be summer break for the kids, but cleaning teams are still hard at work inside educational facilities. High-functioning schools that properly serve students and staff have officials at the helm who are always looking ahead at how to improve, grow and provide clean, comfortable and healthy environments. Doing that requires intimate knowledge of the challenges and successes that got departments where they are today. 

Whether overseeing multi-school K-12 districts or sprawling universities, facility cleaning managers have their fingers on the pulse of their facilities, as well as the demands that come with managing inside a public venue. In this roundtable discussion, Facility Cleaning Decisions spoke with industry experts to address how facilities are evolving to continue to meet the needs within these challenging facilities. 

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Richard A. Archuletta
Executive Director of Facility Management
Denver Public Schools

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Sharon L. Boyd, RBSM, C.P.T.
Supervisor, Custodial Services - Plant Services
Newport News Public Schools

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Steven J. Eichman, CSRM, EASCM
Facilities Manager
West Allis-West Milwaukee School District

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Jodi Krause
Assistant Director – Building Services
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Terry MacNeil
Facilities Management Team Manager - East Bank Team 4
University of Minnesota - Twin Cities Campus

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Ricky Martinez
Assistant Director of Facility Services
Salt Lake City School District

Is staffing a universal hurdle for educational facilities, and if so, how are you navigating this challenge in order to keep facilities clean and healthy for occupants?

Martinez: Yes, even though we have made improvements by raising the starting wages for part timers (sweepers) — student sweepers went from $7.50 to $12.50 and adult sweepers went from $9.50 to $15.50. We still face high turnover, call ins, vacation time, and long-term leave we must account for. To overcome these hurdles, we offer overtime for whoever wants to help other schools that are understaffed. If that’s not an option, we have what you call a priority plan. Priority A is if we are fully staffed everything is cleaned, sanitized, and disinfected. Priority B is when we are short staffed and only areas of top priority are completed, such as all restrooms, locker rooms, nurses’ office, cafeteria, take out garbage, sweep and spot mop halls, stairs, and tile rooms. What gets skipped is vacuuming of rooms only, burnishing halls, cleaning windows, and dusting. This is communicated to the school faculty and staff, so they know what to expect on the short staff days.

Archuletta: Staffing is a hurdle on both the custodial side of facilities, as well as in maintenance. We are using temporary staff in custodial and headhunters to assist in filling vacancies.

Eichman: To navigate our staffing challenges and ensure that our schools remain clean and healthy for occupants, we have been using the following:

  1. Efficient Staff Allocation: Utilizing resources efficiently by strategically allocating staff to areas of highest priority maximizes the impact of available personnel.
  2. Training and Development: We have invested in training and development programs for staff to enhance their skills and job satisfaction, which we hope will lead to better retention rates and performance.
  3. Technology Integration: While we have not yet done so, we are exploring implementing technology such as automated cleaning equipment or scheduling software to streamline operations and reduce the manual workload, allowing our staff to focus on more specialized tasks.
  4. Collaboration and Outsourcing: Collaborating with other departments or outsourcing certain tasks to third-party service providers has been a huge help in filling staffing gaps and ensuring that essential services are maintained.
  5. Recognition: Providing recognition for staff members who consistently perform well can boost morale and motivation, contributing to higher levels of job satisfaction and retention. We are in the initial stages of this, so we do not know about its effectiveness yet.
  6. Flexibility and Adaptability: Being flexible and adaptable in staffing arrangements, such as offering part-time or flexible hours, can attract a wider pool of candidates and accommodate varying needs and preferences. As a public institution, we are limited in our ability to do this.
  7. Community Engagement: Engaging with the local community through partnerships, volunteer programs, or internship opportunities we hope will help cultivate interest in the positions among potential candidates, thereby expanding the recruitment pool.

By employing a combination of these strategies, our goal is that we will be better able to navigate staffing challenges and ensure that our schools remain clean and healthy for all occupants.

Krause: I’m not comfortable saying that it’s a universal hurdle. I hear staffing is an issue from colleagues and others in educational facilities, and I have seen educational facilities where it is a serious problem. I would say that it is a very common hurdle, currently. It’s hard because we have been experiencing the other side recently — we have all our positions filled in the housekeeping and building services areas.

Boyd: Yes, staffing continues to be a universal hurdle for educational facilities, especially in custodial services. One of the methods NNPS Custodial Services has implemented to support the retention of custodial staff is implementing incentive programs such as clean school award, perfect attendance award, and employee of the month award. Other areas that have improved retention is maintaining an effective training program, which includes succession training so custodial staff have increased opportunities for internal growth and offering employees opportunities to acquire certifications. Finally, we are creating a work environment that is open, engaging, trusting and where employees can seek flexible schedules to meet work/life balance.

What would you classify as the top three hurdles your cleaning team faces when trying to maintain safe and healthy educational environments?

Martinez: The biggest hurdle is staffing — filling open part time positions, employees call out, vacation and long-term leave. Behind that is the budget for new equipment. We currently do not have a big enough budget to keep up with equipment life span rotation. Finally, wages — even though we have improved, we still have some room for growth to compete with the job market.

Archuletta: There is never enough time or access to clean spaces. And we are dealing with vacancies, which increase the square feet team members must cover each night.

Eichman: The top three hurdles our custodians face in maintaining safe and healthy schools include:

  1. Heavy Foot Traffic: Daily our schools experience high volumes of foot traffic, which can lead to quicker accumulation of dirt, germs, and debris. Our custodians struggle at times to keep up with the constant flow of people, leading to challenges in maintaining cleanliness throughout the day.
  2. Diverse Surfaces and Materials: Our schools contain a variety of surfaces and materials, from carpets and hardwood floors to desks and electronic equipment. Each surface requires specific cleaning techniques and products to ensure effective disinfection without causing damage. Managing this diversity while adhering to safety protocols can be a significant challenge for our custodians.
  3. Limited Resources and Budget Constraints: Like most public-school districts we operate with limited resources and budget constraints, which at times impacts the availability of cleaning supplies, equipment, and staffing. Custodians, at times, face difficulties in acquiring the necessary resources to adequately clean and disinfect the entire facility, leading to compromised hygiene standards and increased risk of illness transmission.

MacNeil: The three hurdles our custodial teams run into in trying to maintain a safe and healthy environment for our students would be:

The university is a public institute so the more than 200 buildings we service are open long hours to provide space for students, faculty and community to use. This makes it difficult to get into spaces to clean.

The weather changes in Minnesota also provide many variables that make it difficult to keep the buildings clean in safe. In the winter, we deal with a lot of snow. Having to use ice melt leaves a white residue on both hard floor surfaces and carpet, which takes more time to maintain. It can also be a safety hazard due to the potential of slips, trips and falls. The fall months will bring in leaves that are blown in through entryways, which again takes extra time to keep our entrances looking great.

The last hurdle is cleaning up cigarette butts and ash from all areas on campus. Even though we are a smoke-free institute, and have a policy in place where you need to be off university property to smoke, there is still the issue of compliance.

Krause: Time management by staff is our biggest hurdle and something we are consistently working on with our teams. Second to that is the need for continued and repeated training for staff. And like most educational facilities, the unpredictability of working around students is always a challenge.

Boyd: The biggest challenge our cleaning team faces is working around K-12 operations. The schools are getting more students and increased activities, but custodial services have not had an increase. Additionally, there is an expectation of high services from the custodial staff since the pandemic.

How have you combatted or overcome budgetary constraints?

Archuletta: We have been able to use vacancy savings to help offset some costs, such as temporary staff. But we are spending a lot more on overtime to offset those vacancies which cannot be supported by temporary staff, such as building managers.

Eichman: Our department has been extremely fortunate that our district administration strongly supports the facilities department and, as a result, we have not had to deal with negative budgetary constraints or issues.

Krause: We aren’t really trying to combat budgets — we work within them. It’s not easy, but one thing that really has helped is using sustainable products or equipment because they last longer and/or require less money in a variety of ways.

Boyd: We utilize the best practices, vendor partnerships, review supply requisitions, and are cautious about spending. Most recently, since it is the end of the year (at the time of this writing), overtime use has been decreased, so we have been very creative in job sharing and flexible scheduling to ensure all areas are covered with little-to-no use of overtime. We are also ensuring the custodial staff have the proper knowledge of how to maintain equipment and floor care, which has helped cut back on a lot of the large ticket items.

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Challenges to Involving Building Occupants in Cleaning Programs