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Perham: Where the bosses are janitors

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It's every manager's nightmare: Early in the morning, after extinguishing a few of the day's first fires, you return to the office.

Waiting there for you, unannounced, an OSHA inspector.

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That's what happened to Fred Sailer, Perham school district's facilities director, on Jan. 21.

OSHA types are never a welcome sight, but for the Perham school district, this visit was especially challenging.

Why?

Because the school no longer has a head custodian.

"We were scrambling to accommodate OSHA," admitted Sailer, who is now a

"co-head custodian." His partner: Superintendent Tamara Uselman.

Perham school administrators have a new component to their job descriptions: chief custodians.

Budget cuts at the Perham schools over recent years have reduced the maintenance and custodial staff to a lean crew. Tens of thousands of dollars have been slashed from the custodial department over the past three years.

Then in late December, head custodian Eric Speicher resigned his position.

Instead of replacing him, the administrative team is taking the responsibility.

"We decided to try to do this ourselves...Let's give it a shot for a month. Maybe we can save a teacher in a classroom by cutting expenses," said Sailer. "At this point, we're now looking to going all the way through the school year."

Continual budget cuts a factor in head custodian resignation

It is no secret that Speicher's resignation was, essentially, a fallout of the crippling budget cuts at the schools. Sailer said that Speicher, a 10-year employee with the district, felt he was "being pulled in too many directions."

According to Sailer, Speicher cited stress as one of his reasons for quitting.

The school reduced its custodial management team from a chief custodian in each building, to Speicher as management of all facilities. Meanwhile, numerous cleaners and janitors have been cut during Speicher's tenure.

How lean is the custodial workforce?

For a perspective, Sailer recalled when the entire Perham student body was in one building. "We had more custodians and cleaners in one building at that time than we have in three buildings now," said Sailer.

Principals, administrators acting as custodial supervisors

As the system is now structured, each building principal will act as a primary contact: John Rutten at the high school; Kari Yates at the elementary; and Scott Bjerke in the middle school.

A lead custodian is the point person at each building: Maurice Lacourse, at the high school; Brian Doberstein at the middle school; and Ken Paulson, at the elementary.

For Sailer and Superintendent Uselman, it is now they who are getting the alarm calls at 5 in the morning about unlocked doors or malfunctioning heating equipment-which has happened several times.

At a recent wrestling match, Uselman was spotted picking up litter and tidying up tables and chairs.

Principals pleased with patchwork custodial system-so far

As for the principals, they are stepping up to the challenge. And so is the remaining janitorial and cleaning staff.

"We're going to try to get through the school year," said high school principal John Rutten. "We'll re-evaluate in the spring for the next school, to see if this will work."

"The custodial staff has done an unbelievable job of stepping up to the plate.

Thanks to everyone for their extra efforts to keep our buildings clean, safe, and beautiful," commented Principal Yates, in her Jan. 20 report to the Perham School Board.

"Hats off to our custodial crew at Prairie Wind Middle School during this time of transition. Despite a shake-up in assignments and hours for some, the quality of work has not diminished," noted middle school Principal Bjerke.

So far, so good, said Sailer. But it is an unusual system, he acknowledged.

"I've never heard of a custodial department operating quite this way," said Sailer.

Having worked closely with custodial staff over the years, and also directly involved with past school building projects, Sailer is more comfortable with maintenance and janitorial operations than most school officials.

"You learn on the run. You develop some contacts; and you use those contacts when you find yourself in over your head," said Sailer.

Fortunately, one of the custodians has a state boiler operator's license, which is necessary to operate the heating system at the high school--the district's oldest building. The newer elementary and middle schools are geothermal heat, and don't require special certification, said Sailer.

"Our only big concern is maintenance of the big equipment," said Sailer, "and the risk of damaging an expensive piece of equipment."

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