Staff Essay: Custodial understaffing underlines the lack of public accountability within PPS

Recall if you will a small news article I wrote back in mid-September about the understaffing of custodians here at school.

In a brief cold-call to facilities operations manager of Grant and Jefferson High Schools, Stetson James– with whom I spoke because Lincoln and Ida B. Wells’ utilities manager Antonye Harris was out of the office and I was directed to James– told me Lincoln was understaffed because “nobody was applying.”

What I didn’t know at the time of writing was that the whole Portland Public Schools (PPS) custodial facilities structure has no say over hiring custodians. That’s because under Oregon Law 243.310 to 242.640, it delegates hiring responsibilities of our district to a team of three independent volunteers as part of something called the Custodian Civil Service Board (CCSB). 

As written in the law, three volunteers make sure PPS follows the laws regarding custodial standards. In practice, the CCSB has two volunteers, and has had a vacancy since November 2015.

When I was told “no-one was applying” I wish I knew that the CCSB reports regularly, as required by law, how many applications were sent in, how many people took the test and how many were placed on the “hiring list.”

In that September I spoke to Stetson James, 63 people applied and 22 were put on the hiring list. [1] [2] Looking back at older reports from the CCSB, the amount of people applying seems to be steady and consistent with the past few years. 

In my original article, Lincoln’s head custodian, Roger Hastings, said we needed two new custodians. 

When I asked Principal Chapman to confirm if our custodial office was understaffed, she said it was and pointed to the district’s control of funding as the culprit.

I tried to find evidence.

The district budget for the 2022-2023 school year says, “The Health and Safety of PPS Students is a critical goal, and General Fund resources are being committed towards needed custodial positions as well as investments in security.”

I looked into every publicly available budget I could find, trying to see if investments were being made– or had been made– from the general fund share towards custodial positions. I looked at the general fund balance sheet. I looked for year-over-year records. I found nothing.

I reached out to the school board to provide evidence custodial funding was actually being increased or committed to by the District.

By email, I was routed from Lincoln’s District Board member Amy Kohnstamn, to Senior Director of Communications Freddie Mack, then to Public Records Officer Ryan Vandahey; all of whom promised to get back to me promptly. I waited days, then weeks, now over a month.

Here’s the kicker: in the 2021-2022 budget last year, it writes the exact same claim that funds are being increased, with the same words, in the exact same spot. In neither budget does it show proof of this claim being true.

Months later I’m not any closer to finding out what’s causing our custodial shortage, or what’s being done to address it. Not for a lack of effort, but because PPS said they would give me the public records I am entitled to and then didn’t.

The only conclusion I can make is that this district does not care about student journalists or public accountability. I asked PPS to tell me what was wrong, to give me their side of the story. And they didn’t. Even. Bother.