Attempts by the Commercial to obtain a signed copy of a cleaning contract between GCA Educational Services and the Pine Bluff School District through the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act have gone unanswered by Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Michael Robinson.

The first FOIA request was sent on May 15. A second request was sent on July 19. In Arkansas, any person who violates the FOIA law can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor.

The Commercial did receive an executive summary from Robinson in March showing a proposed agreement between GCA Educational Services and the district; however, it was unsigned and non-binding.

Meanwhile, custodians who used to work for the Pine Bluff School District but now are employed by GCA protested Tuesday night about what they called unfair treatment associated with the outsourcing of their jobs. Eight people held signs outside the Pine Bluff School District central office at 512 S. Pine St. denouncing unfair treatment.

The board was meeting inside the building at the time. Pine Bluff School Board President Henry Dabner said the district has signed a contract with GCA Educational Services through which the custodians are now working. The district is saving about $600,000 through the contract with GCA Educational Services, Robinson and Dabner have said.

Robinson and Dabner have also said that the custodians have kept their jobs as long as they passed a drug test and a background check. Dabner said the employees knew about the outsourcing before it occurred. Vernitta Wright demonstrated against what she called poor treatment. Wright said she worked as a custodian for the Pine Bluff School District for more than 18 years and is now working for GCA.

“This is what I get: a slap in the face,” Wright said. “My job, my insurance, my bills, my life. This is what I worked for and now I ain’t got nothing.”

Wright said she opposes working for GCA, which, she said, charges insurance that is prohibitively expensive for a custodian who earns a modest salary. Wright said her colleagues and she lost retirement benefits as well. Mattie Williams worked for the school district for almost 23 years as a custodian and said the district removed her health insurance and other benefits.

“I have heart trouble,” Williams said. “I’ve had two heart attacks. I don’t have any insurance in case I need to go to the doctor. And I think that’s ridiculous. I lost my job for no reason after all the work I did for them. They just threw me under the bus with no health insurance at all. I am hoping I don’t pass out working in all that heat like I am a slave.”

Janet Hicks is another custodian who worked for the Pine Bluff School District for 37 years and is now working for GCA. She blamed board members and Robinson for what she called unfair treatment.

“If a person works all their life to get some type of retirement, they should have let us continue to work,” Hicks said. “I think it was really bad how they did us. There is too much crookedness in the school district. After 37 years, I never thought Pine Bluff School District would go down like this. This is about the worst I’ve ever seen. And it brings sadness to my heart.”

Shirley Holman opposed the district considering only one custodial company with whom to contract. Holman said she worked for the district for 26 years and lost her benefits.

“I don’t think that is right,” Holman said.

Robinson has said that he met with the custodial employees prior to their being outsourced to GCA. GCA Educational Services has not returned phone calls from the Commercial regarding the terms of their contract with the district. Robinson and Dabner have said that the contract uses money more effectively. Dabner was asked if the Pine Bluff School District custodians are losing their retirement benefits.

“They are not under the state retirement anymore because we outsourced,” Dabner said. “They still have a 401K. There are two different insurances that they can get. … My job is to save as much money for the district. After you look at the numbers, you have to do what is right by kids. I mentor kids in the community. My fight is not [on behalf of] adults and to get everyone a bonus. They have a 401K through GCA. Some people are upset because they cannot draw from the state retirement system.”

Dabner was asked if the custodians in question are losing their health insurance. He responded “No. They have health insurance. We made sure that the company offered them health insurance.”

“People did understand they had to go back through the hiring process,” Dabner said. “Some people did not pass the background check. They had stuff on their record so they were not supposed to be working [in the first place]. I know that all the custodians were offered a job as long as they passed the stipulations.”

Dabner said he was contacted by several Pine Bluff School District principals who said certain custodians were not doing their jobs, but that did not factor into his support of outsourcing the custodians.

“You know that Pine Bluff is in a position to save money [through outsourcing],” Dabner said. “I feel that we as a district do not communicate well with each other. We can sit down to discuss this. I understand that not everyone gets to attend all the conferences. GSA did speak with these people.

“Dr. Robinson sat down with the custodians. When you outsource, people are not going to hit the ground running, even though they have been doing it for years. We cannot afford to not listen to the [Arkansas School Boards Association.] We have a declining enrollment. You know that everyone is not doing what they are supposed to do. And some people are doing excellent work. You should reward those people. There are some people who have been sleeping on the job. You are going to have good apples and bad apples. I feel like we made the best decision because I make decisions based on the students’ needs and saving the district money.”

In other news, the Pine Bluff School Board voted to hire North Little Rock-based MTZ Cleaning at a cost of $10,500 to do one-time cleaning of cafeterias at Pine Bluff High School, Forrest Park Elementary School, Jack Robey Junior High School, 34th Avenue Elementary School, Southwood Elementary School, W.T. Cheney Elementary School and Broadmoor Elementary School prior to students returning to school on Aug. 14. Superintendent Robinson recommended the board take this action.

Mid-South Industrial Cleaning submitted a bid to clean Pine Bluff High School’s cafeteria for $2,800, Broadmoor’s cafeteria for $1,500 and 34th Avenue Elementary School’s cafeteria for $2,000. Mid-South would need at least one month to do the cleaning. In other news, the board approved spending $69,167.92 to buy a combination oven, a double stack convection oven, proofer/warmer cabinets, meat slicers, a food cutter and a braising/tilting plan. Robinson made this request and said the money would come from capital outlay.

Two employees of the Arkansas Department of Education observed the Tuesday meeting. Richard Wilde works in the public school accountability office in school improvement and Elbert Harvey is the coordinator of school improvement in the standards division.

Asked if they ever told the board not to allow public comment, Wilde and Harvey said they did not. They said they advise the board to follow its policies. At a board meeting earlier this month, Dabner told speakers who had signed up to address the board that they would not be allowed to do so because the board had been advised by the State Board of Education not to allow public speaking at meetings.

On Thursday, Dabner said he was advised by lawyer Cody Kees or Jay Bequette Jr. of the Law Firm Bequette & Billingsley, who represent the Pine Bluff School District. Dabner said he has invited these lawyers to attend an upcoming school board meeting to discuss rules governing public comment.

“We do not discourage public comment but if it was about a certain individual, we do not allow it,” Dabner said.

Dabner cited an Arkansas School Boards Association directive that states:

“Never grant speakers a place on the agenda to address the board about personnel issues. The board is obligated to remain impartial in all personnel matters, for it may eventually need to consider a disciplinary action or dismissal. Board members must preserve their objectivity by insisting that all personnel matters be brought before the board through the proper channel, which is the superintendent. Citizens with concerns about employees should be invited to share their comments with the superintendent in private.”