Janitors' case continues to reverberate
Wednesday, July 19, 2006 S. Renee Mitchell
Complicated and expensive don't even begin to describe the years-long process of making the lives of the fired school custodians whole again.
How can anyone reverse the dominoes that led to people losing their homes to foreclosure, gutting retirement accounts to make ends meet and missing out on medical care they couldn't afford without insurance?
Since the Oregon Supreme Court said last year that Portland Public Schools was wrong to lay off 300 custodians in 2002, the district has scrambled to fix a rapidly arranged mistake based on a faulty argument about getting more for less.
"I should have known better," says Lolenzo Poe, a former school board member who says he regrets his vote to fire the custodians. "Everything we got from PHC (Portland Habilitation Center) said we would get twice the cleaning, twice the service for less money. But look at the record. They did not do what they said."
More to the point, the court says the district violated the state's 1937 Custodians Civil Service Law, which protects Portland's custodians from being fired without just cause. Then the district hired two expensive law firms to throw good money after a bad decision.
Now, Portland Public Schools -- which still hasn't issued anything close to an apology -- is obliged to eat crow. And the forced reconciliation comes as the district plans to groom voters to approve another property tax increase come November.
That's a tough case to make when your credibility is on probation.
Many teachers and parents are already displeased with the district cutting and pasting groups of students into different buildings, school boundary lines and K-8 grade clusters.
Hundreds of custodians are still upset that they were treated so heartlessly. So, despite the Supreme Court ruling, legal maneuvering continues for back pay and other damages, which could cost the district many more millions of dollars.
"The district created this monster," says Don Strong, who says he lost his home, family and retirement savings after he lost his custodian job. "Now they're going to have to clean it up. They have to give us back everything that we lost -- and then some."
At least six attorneys -- and possibly others -- represent the fired custodians and the Service Employees International Union.
"The proliferation of the attorneys is only an indication that there's blood in the water, and there's money to be made," says James Leuenberger, a Lake Oswego attorney who has at least eight custodians as clients.
Many issues remain unresolved. The custodians were given until Thursday to raise their hand to get their jobs back. But there's no simple way to identify who wants to return.
Next month, the Custodians Civil Service Board will start testing new applicants to fill any custodian vacancies. But the board members' terms have expired, so who will serve on it?
Which union do the custodians really want to speak for them? And why has the district already negotiated a new custodians contract with SEIU Local 503, which also represented the contracted PHC employees who took the custodians' jobs away.
Earlier this month, Strong, one of the more outspoken members of the now-defunct SEIU 140 custodians union, complained to folks at SEIU headquarters in Washington, D.C.
"SEIU 503 is letting us down," he wrote. "We are not organized. We have no elected leaders."
It will likely take years to add up the toll that the district's hasty budget-balancing decision has cost the custodians and will cost the city's taxpayers. Job offers alone will never undo the fall of the dominoes. Much more is required. So much more is deserved.
"The decision we made was wrong," Poe says. "Yeah, I know the cost, the impact, but I think that's part of the price of making a person whole."
And of regaining credibility.
S. Renee Mitchell: 503-221-8142; firstname.lastname@example.org