Going in-house could help bottom line: CUPE boss

The head of the New Westminster school district's support staff union says the district's distressed bottom line could be helped considerably by cutting back on contracting out.

Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 409 president Marcel Marsolais said while there are specialized situations that require outside help, much of the work being contracted out by the district could be done in-house by CUPE maintenance members.

"We have proved time and time again we can do it cheaper and we can do it better in house," said Marsolais. "The board seems to have overlooked that."

The board of education is currently wrestling with finding ways to avoid a projected $2.2 million deficit for the current 2012-13 school year, and developing a plan to find ways to pay for a $2.8 million shortfall in 2011-12, as well as make sure its financial house is in order so it won't incur more deficits in the future.

Marsolais said for 30 years the existing maintenance staff had done the district's flooring removal and installation, but for the last three years the work has been contracted out.

"There's absolutely no reason for that," said Marsolais.

He pointed out New Westminster was one of the few districts that used its own staff to install the modular buildings the province supplied when it decided to go to all-day kindergarten. And now the equipment purchased for those projects is being used by non-CUPE workers contracted out by the district for other projects.

Marsolais said the district claimed the CUPE members don't have the skill set to do certain jobs, but he said its members do have the skills and also the funds to train the staff to be able to do the jobs. "There's no need to be contracted out."

He said the savings come because many of the companies the district hires cost $65 to $70 an hour just to walk through the door.

Board chair Michael Ewen said he couldn't comment on Marsolais' suggestions because there are some union grievances pending. However, he noted the district did realize "substantial savings" when it decided to bring its major electrical work in-house in recent years.

"It's something the board feels is worth looking at," said Ewen. "It would not have any impact in 2012-13, but it might down the road … I'm happy to have that discussion."

He said one obstacle to conducting an analysis of Marsolais' suggestion is the district's small senior staff is already stretched for time.

Last Tuesday, the board made a series of staff adjustments to help reduce the current school year's projected deficit. Although trustees wouldn't go into detail, citing personnel confidentiality, Marsolais said one of the adjustments, expected to save $300,000, involved not replacing employees who leave or are absent for sickness or other reasons. He cited custodians not being replaced when calling in sick as an example of creating an unhealthy workplace which leads to further absenteeism. In addition, not replacing special education assistants could put student safety at risk.

"It's not a solution. Some of these measures could end up costing more and, of course, it could work against providing educational support to students," said Marsolais. "I'm not blaming this on the board. This is all about fair funding. Despite what the provincial government has told us, there has been no increase in funds for 10 years … We can't continue to cut this way and not expect to have an adverse situation on the education system."

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