In the fall of 2022, the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) issued a $5-per-hour pay increase for over 700 staff members totaling $8.5 million. Lunch workers, special education assistants, security assistants and others were included in the recent raise.
However, the budget passed on a 6-1 vote with no additional funds allocated for maintenance staff. In response, MMSD maintenance workers pushed for a $5-per-hour pay raise at the Feb. 27 school board meeting, claiming their needs have been ignored.
“I’ll be real with you — people are feeling it,” custodian Matthew Ayala said during the board meeting. “We’re there for you, we got your back and we are hoping you guys got ours.”
District spokesperson Tim LeMonds said this group represented the lowest paid groups with starting salaries about $2 per hour less than custodians.
“We provided education assistants and food service workers a $5-per-hour increase to align their starting pay to that of the starting pay of custodial staff,” LeMonds said in an email. “The starting rate for a building custodian is now almost identical to the starting rate for educational assistant and food service units.”
Outgoing Superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins said the district can only afford to give raises where they are needed most, as the district has not received enough funding from the state. LeMonds said the district is trying to assist staff within budget constraints.
“The district continues to look for ways to appropriately value our custodial staff as we continue to navigate the very significant budgetary constraints that all school districts in Wisconsin are currently facing,” LeMonds added.
In an interview with The Daily Cardinal, maintenance worker Robert Larson emphasized that he and his colleagues are not limited to the role of a custodian. Various responsibilities include snow removal, tree removal, lawn care, playground installation and handling internal deliveries for the school. Operating responsibilities include plumbing, heating and electrical work.
There are currently 195 maintenance workers, custodians, equipment operators, grounds clerks and stock clerks across the district, according to Larson. He said the district allocates for 217 employees in those departments.
“People are starting to get burnt out, hurt, feeling under-appreciated because no matter how much time you put in, the work is not going to be done,” he said. “We’re just short too many people.”
Larson said many school board members have been reluctant to consider motions to give maintenance workers a pay increase.
“It's almost like they've been advised not to bring it up,” he said. “The board won’t even discuss it.”
Larson criticized the school board for wavering on the issue.
“You’re making million-dollar decisions and you have no idea what you’re voting for,” Larson emphasized.
School board member Nicki Vander Meulen said she supports the workers’ push for a pay increase.
“It’s a stagnant issue,” Vander Meulen said. “I’m seeing classrooms aren’t as clean. I’m hearing from custodians themselves.”
Vander Meulen said that if the school is unable to clear snow or ice, they are unable to operate, which results in school closures. She said she was told shortly after approving the raises for other employees the board would then focus on custodians, but “no talks have happened since that vote.”
“It's very frustrating because these are people,” she said. “These are our workers, and we're paying under what other places are paying. People aren't getting what they need to get.”
Larson said he believes the school board could have provided employees a “little bit [of] a smaller raise and included us in it.”
“We’re the only group that worked all the way through the pandemic,” he said. “We were there every day.”
A maintenance crew raise would mean MMSD could compete with other districts, attract quality workers and ensure a positive impact on students, according to Meulen.
“Without a doubt, we cannot be competitive without it,” Vander Meulen noted.
Vander Meulen said the raise would allow maintenance workers to get paid more fairly for their work.
“Anytime we leave anyone out, it's not progressive,” Vander Meulen said. “Everyone deserves to be paid for their work and be prepared to pay the living wage, and right now we're not doing that.”
Ava Menkes is the state news editor at The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple stories about Wisconsin politics and written in-depth about nurses unions and youth voter turnout. Follow her on Twitter at @AvaMenkes.