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Newsletter raises concerns in school district

South Whidbey School District officials are scrambling this week to knock down criticism that its classrooms and bathrooms are dirty because of cutbacks in the hours for custodians for the Intermediate and Primary schools.

A newsletter for the South Whidbey Elementary School Parent Teacher Association that was sent home to hundreds of parents last week criticized the school district for cutting three custodial jobs and said students could be at risk because of filthy facilities.

“At least 13 classrooms are not being vacuumed, cleaned or mopped...on a daily basis,” the newsletter said, and the letter warned of a MRSA bacteria outbreak.

District Superintendent Fred McCarthy said the newsletter was written by a new volunteer for the PTA and that the editorial about classroom cleanliness has numerous factual errors.

The newsletter was sent to approximately 650 Elementary School student parents on Jan. 8. It asked concerned parents to contact school board members directly and listed their home phone numbers.

McCarthy said the newsletter implies the school district arbitrarily cut custodian positions.

“We did not do that,” McCarthy said.

What McCarthy did do, however, was move staffing levels around different schools to balance inequities. The changes were made based on a study that compared South Whidbey with other school districts.

“Every time we have a movement of personnel, we evaluate whether to replace the position or reduce the position,” he said.

“We had done studies and compared our custodial services to other districts. We had a little more at the elementary school and a little less at the high school,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said the district had an opportunity to balance custodial services when a custodian retired.

“This is a management issue, not a school board issue,” he said. “Reducing, reassigning or rearranging personnel is within our prerogative and we did some staff movement.”

A total of five hours were cut from the schedule for custodians.

“We decided to transfer three hours of custodial time from the Intermediate and Primary Schools to the high school, and to reduce time at the Intermediate and Primary Schools by one hour each. The net effect was four hours from the Intermediate School and one hour from the Primary School,” he said.

The reductions were necessary because of smaller revenue streams to the district because of declining enrollment, McCarthy said.

“These kinds of reductions have been made in all employee groups, administration, teaching and support staff,” he said.

One custodian was not satisfied with the cut hours, however, and complained to the district.

McCarthy heard the employee’s complaint on Jan. 4 and was forming his opinion about how to respond when the SWEPTA newsletter was sent out.

Before the employee met with McCarthy, the worker met with SWEPTA members on Dec. 13 and shared his concerns, McCarthy said.

“When the newsletter was sent home, I had not rendered any decision and I somehow felt that it was an attempt to apply undue pressure. Regardless of the circumstances on how the letter was sent, our job is to correct any errors and move on.”

McCarthy said he has since reinstated the lost hours until the end of the school year.

It will be a temporary measure, McCarthy said. Contract negotiations for the custodians will be underway in March, and the workers’ contract is set to expire at the end of August.

The district currently employees two custodians for each elementary school building.

This isn’t the first time there’s been a concern about cleanliness.

Last November, school officials reported a case of MRSA at the Elementary School.

MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus bacteria, is spread by having close contact with an infected person or by touching objects such as towels, sheets, clothes, workout areas or sports equipment that have been contaminated with the bacteria.

As soon as the South End student who had MRSA was diagnosed, the classroom, bathrooms and common areas at the Primary School were disinfected with a strong product called Hepastat.

McCarthy said the district and the school board are responsive and very interested in the issues raised in the newsletter.

In an effort to reduce newsletter mistakes in the future, the editor will be sending articles to the school district office for a review, SWEPTA co-president Shelly Ackerman said.

Ackerman said the person who wrote the article will write a correction statement.

“We haven’t had an editorial before in our newsletter. But so far, the feedback has been positive,” she said.

Spencer Webster can be reached at 221-5300 or swebster@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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