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Archive for Sunday, November 26, 2000

Tight job market makes Lawrence schools struggle for staff

November 26, 2000

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Lawrence schools need people willing to cook up a storm in cafeterias and bring a spit-polish shine to classrooms.

Twenty-five job vacancies exist on the public school district's food service and janitorial crews. Add to that unquenchable demand for substitute teachers and another example of Lawrence's tight job market emerges.

Jim Thomas, head custodian at East Heights Elementary School,
sweeps a hall recently. He has been a district employee for five
years and a custodian for 15 years.The Lawrence school district has
a shortage of custodial and food service workers and is having a
hard time filling the positions.

Jim Thomas, head custodian at East Heights Elementary School, sweeps a hall recently. He has been a district employee for five years and a custodian for 15 years.The Lawrence school district has a shortage of custodial and food service workers and is having a hard time filling the positions.

District administrators say it will be a miracle if these jobs are filled soon.

The reason is no secret: mediocre wages. For example, a rookie janitor in an elementary school in Lawrence earns $7.60 an hour. That's just 10 cents an hour more than offered by McDonald's restaurants in Lawrence.

Experienced custodians have been hired away by nearby districts willing to pay more than $10 an hour.

"We have trouble competing," said Tom Bracciano, the school district's director of facilities and operations.

He said most potential employees balk when talk turns to salary.

"We do have excellent benefits," he said. "A lot of people look past that at the starting wage. It keeps them from applying."

The district has turned to temporary-employment agencies for labor to fill the 80 janitorial slots.

That move has created new tension in schools, because it costs the district more than $11 an hour for a fill-in janitor.

If there's enough money to pay a higher amount to temporary staff, veteran janitors say, where is the cash to improve their compensation.

"What is fair? I'd certainly like better wages for custodial staff," said Jim Thomas, a janitor for three years at East Heights School, 1430 Haskell Ave.

Bracciano said district administrators recognize the need to upgrade salary schedules for classified employees.

"We're going to have to bump up the starting wage to be competitive," he said.

Mary Rodriguez, executive director for human resources, said hiring problems for janitors had been ongoing for nearly a year. The food service department is a newcomer to the hiring shortage, she said.

In addition, she said, the district continued to struggle daily to fill an average of 50 substitute teaching positions.

Pay for a full day as a Lawrence substitute is $80, up $2 from last year. That's better than the national average of $65 per day, but less than the $97 rate in the Kansas City, Kan., district.

Generally, substitutes seek better pay, health coverage, computer training, professional development and a better hearing process.

"We will always have a need to increase our substitute pool," Rodriguez said.

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