Custodians making more money than teachers?

May 25, 2010 6:49:12 AM PDT
Has Houston ISD been wasting millions of dollars in unnecessary overtime? Wait 'til you see who's been really cleaning up at Houston's largest school district. It's a mess that needs cleaning up all right, and 13 Undercover has that waste broom all ready. Get this: We've learned that HISD has had some job vacancies for years that were never filled, maybe on purpose, so others could take financial advantage of the overtime it created for them.

HISD's overtime bill this year is $16.3 million. That's why we're cleaning up.

Who's cleaning up at Houston schools? The custodians are, of course, sweeping the classrooms, taking out the trash. But we're not talking about that kind of cleaning up.

Vernon Washington is the chief custodian at Sharpstown High School. You might expect his salary would be less than a teacher would make. And you're right.

But teachers can't get overtime. Washington can. And he's made more than 1,700 hours overtime in just 10 months.

This year, he's more than doubled his base salary to nearly $90,000. He'll make more money than any teacher at the entire high school -- more than the assistant principals make.

"If you paid teachers time and half overtime, they would be knocking down $100,000-plus a year," said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers union. "And they can't. And there will be resentment."

There's no evidence Washington has not earned every single penny, but HISD now admits its overtime bill is out of control.

At Sharpstown alone, 12 custodians made $97,000 in overtime in just 10 months. And Washington alone made nearly half of it.

"I think that's grossly unfair," said Wretha Thomas, president of the Houston Educational Support Personnel union. "That's grossly unfair because they don't have a balance. There's no balance there."

A custodian's complaint led to us to examine HISD's huge overtime bill. When we saw those staggering overtime numbers, we said, "Hey dude, I thought we were broke!"

What we saw has helped lead to a crackdown.

"I want to give credit where credit is due," said Issa Dadoush.

It's a startling admission from HISD's new general manager of facilities.

"We're not going to stand over here and tell you that we don't have a problem," Dadoush said. "We have a problem."

It turns out, most of the overtime we've been paying for may have been unnecessary.

"When you saw the numbers," Dolcefino began to ask Dadoush.

"Let's say that I was not happy," he replied.

Even some at HISD admit a culture of overtime entitlement has existed for years.

"Overtime is being shut down as we speak," Dadoush said.

When Dolcefino asked Thomas whether they're been ignoring it for years, she said, "And it's not like this just happened last week or last month. They've been doing it."

The overtime racket is not news to Thomas. When Dolcefino asked her if we've wasted about $20 or $30 million, Thomas replied, "Probably."

"That's money that could have been put in the classroom, could've been put on new computer equipment," Fallon said. "When you look at the computers in HISD, they must have to go to an antique store to get parts."

Some of the custodian overtime is due to the amazing absentee rate among custodians.

"Twelve to 14 percent of our employees are not showing up for work," Dadoush said.

That means every single school day, about 160 custodians simply don't show up.

"They don't pay them enough money, one thing." Thomas said. "Custodians probably make $8, $9 an hour, and it brings down morale, and it gets the morale where it's 'I don't care.'"

Dolcefino told Dadoush, "We have substitute teachers," and Dadoush responded, "We should have a substitute pool for custodians."

And get this: Some custodians were often paid overtime to be on call during school holidays. Sometimes more than one custodian at the very same school is paid a full day's overtime even if they were never called.

And if you think some custodians are cleaning up, imagine how teachers with PhDs will feel to find out the guy who mows the lawn at his school has the chance to make more money than they do?

"If they're working enough hours to make that much money, then we're not scheduling right," Fallon said.

One grounds crew leader made more than $100,000. The guy who repairs the mowers made more than $46,000 -- just in overtime.

And we couldn't help but notice discrepancies. Take those huge overtime bills for maintaining the grounds at HISD's Northwest Transit Center. Some groundskeepers claim they spent both weekend days here.

But it's hard not to notice something about this place.

"A lot of concrete," Dadoush said.

"And concrete is pretty easy to care for?" Dolcefino asked.

"Yes," Dadoush said.

Yeah, that's what we were thinking, a lot of concrete, not much grass to cut.

"How can you mow grass on concrete?" Thomas said.

Especially when a crew starts working at 6am, and some of them claim they weren't done until 8:30pm.

"It does not take that long to clean the grounds," Dadoush said.

Now you know who's really cleaning up with your tax dollars.

We noticed something else. Some schools operate with virtually no overtime; others need a huge amount. Westbury High School needed the most -- $150,000 at that one school.

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