Fort Lee Custodians Keep Schools Clean, Safe for Students
Joe Cappellini, the union representative for the custodians in the district, talks about the integral role he and his colleagues play in education, even with reduced manpower.
The Fort Lee school district has 18 custodians, spread across all six public schools, including two maintenance men and one head custodian.
It used to be that there were closer to 50, but a couple of years ago, the district let go more than half of them—some retired and some were laid off. But that hasn’t changed Lewis F. Cole Middle School custodian Joe Cappellini’s approach to his job, and he has hopes that as workers retire, the district will be able to bring back at least some of his former colleagues, noting that two people have already returned that way.
“It’s not bad,” Capellini said of the resulting reorganization of the custodial staff. “They did a whole rotation. They shift people around to different schools.”
At Fort Lee High School and the middle school, there are two custodians working daytime shifts—Cappellini’s partner at the middle school is Demba Mane—and one at each elementary school. A third custodian comes in at 11 a.m. and works until 7:30 p.m. before an outside company sends in reinforcements for what the custodians call the “p.m. cleaning,” explained Cappellini.
Cappellini, a native New Yorker, who has been working for the Fort Lee school district since 2000, said, “From what I heard, they kept the 18 guys during the day so that kids are familiar with faces.”
He said that in the beginning it was “a little rough” because he was used to working with two or three other guys, but that he became accustomed to working side-by-side with Mane, whom he described as a “true partner.”
“People are lenient with us,” Cappellini said. “They know we’re cut back on staff. They don’t throw a million things at us. But when somebody asks me to do something, I do it. It’s my job. I’m just grateful I do have a job.”
A typical day for Cappellini consists of cleaning up after the kids before morning announcements and during, after and in between the school’s three lunch periods.
“We do the kitchen; we do hall duties,” Cappellini said. “You want something done here, you want something done on the field, that’s what we’re here for.”
But he also said the duties of a custodian go beyond cleaning and maintenance.
“[We] make sure doors are locked; that’s keeping the kids safe,” he said. “We walk around and make sure the building’s safe. I’ll walk outside and make sure there are no strangers around. And if I do see a stranger, I’ll ask. I try to help as best as I can.”
Cappellini, who said his true passion is for cooking, something he’s been doing for 30 years, evening owning his own pizzeria, treats being a custodian as his “primary job,” and says he’s proud of the work he does.
“I do a lot more than I used to do, but I enjoy doing it,” he said. “I just love working. They call me the workhorse, not just here, but anything I do. I come early, and I leave late. That’s what I like to do.”
He added that that mentality, he believes, is characteristic of all of the custodians in the district.
Cappellini, who said he has 52 nieces and nephews, knows that working alongside kids every day is a big responsibility and one that he does not take lightly.
“You don’t intermingle with kids,” he said. “Everything comes from the principal, and then it goes through a secretary to us. If there’s a problem here, or if something happens in the bathroom, we always have a teacher with us; you’re in education.”
But he said that while one-on-one interaction with kids is strictly prohibited, he has had rewarding, memorable experiences working in the school.
“Kids watch you,” Cappellini said. “There might be 200 kids in here, and there’s two custodians walking around with a dust mop and a broom.”
One day, a child asked him, “Do you get paid for this job?”
Cappellini said he was slightly taken aback, but that he explained the difference between being paid to do a job and volunteering.
“He said, ‘Oh, you do a really good job,’” Cappellini said.
Another time, he was fixing a sink, and a student walked in with a parent and said Cappellini, “He’s a really nice guy.”
“And it’s nice, “ Cappellini said. “I always say hello and good morning to everyone because it’s in my nature. It’s another part of my job. Life’s been good here.”
Asked to name a highlight of his time working in the Fort Lee school district, Cappellini, said, without hesitation, “Watching the kids graduate.”
“The whole year is great, but watching the kids graduate and move on, when you see the kids' faces, it’s a good feeling,” he said.
Cappellini, the union representative for the district for custodians and maintenance, speaks highly of his bosses—middle school principal Rosemary Giacomelli, Buildings and Grounds head Jack Denichilo and head custodian Johnny Arroyo, whom Cappellini described as “always helpful” and a “hands-on guy.”
“You always have rough waters somewhere, but you have to make sure you have a good sail,” Cappellini said. “You have to make sure you have good people on top that know what they’re doing, and we seem to have that.”
He added, “It’s all about the kids,” and said he’s proud to be part of the educational process, keeping the school not only clean, but also safe.
“Whatever service I can be, I’m in service to the Fort Lee Board of Education,” Capellini said. “And I want people to walk in and say, ‘Wow, that place looks nice.’”