Ask a school custodian what he did on his summer 'vacation'

''For the first few days of the summer, you're glad they're gone,'' says custodian Anthony Seferian, seated across a table in the cafeteria at the Edith C. Baker Elementary School. ''But soon I miss them. Without the kids in the building, it's just bricks and mortar, no life.''

In about two weeks the life will be back, as students stream through the doors here and in classrooms across the country, marking the end of summer vacation. Custodians like Mr. Seferian have been getting ready all summer for opening day.

Few buildings get harder use than schools. Unlike dog-eared notebooks that students toss in the wastebasket at the end of the year, classrooms, hallways, sandboxes, gymnasiums, and boiler rooms must be cleaned, polished, and maintained.

''July and August we put the buildings back together. They are our busiest months,'' says John Rudser, director of school building maintenance for the Brookline school district. ''Ask a principal who the really indispensible people are on his staff, and I bet a custodian will head the list.''

One of the reasons custodians head the list in Brookline is that school officials, in the aftermath of Massachusetts' property tax-cutting Proposition 21/2, had to stretch every dollar they spent.

''When the budget cuts hit, the school committee tried not to cut anything directly related to students,'' says Mr. Rudser. ''So you know who caught it: We went from four custodians per building to three.''

What that meant for Seferian is that the usual 15,000 square feet of classroom space he was responsible for cleaning daily became 23,000 square feet.

Figures from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate the proportion of school system budgets devoted to maintenance has fallen from 14.1 percent in 1920 to 11 percent in 1950 to 6.7 percent in 1982.

And Brookline keeps its school doors open to the community as much as possible. Be it an after-school day-care program for children of working mothers or a basketball game at night for adults in the high school gym, the one person who must be in the building is a custodian.

To keep up with the schools' long hours, Brookline staggered the workshifts of its cleaning staffs. One member of the three-person team in each building starts at 6 a.m., another at 9 a.m., and another at 1 p.m. This guarantees that there is someone in the building from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Friday. Overtime is used when necessary on weekends.

Another area where Brookline's custodians have shined, Rudser says, is in earning cash bonus payments for energy cost reductions.

Every morning, summer and winter, the senior custodian in each building fills out an energy audit. On it is recorded the amount of heating oil left in the fuel tanks from the day before, as well as the school's electric meter reading. ''Any unusual fluctuations from the day before are immediately checked,'' Rudser says.

''Maybe a teacher left an electric heater on in the science lab, or a window open, or a light on - whatever,'' says Seferian. ''We switch it off that day.''

Under the incentive program, energy costs in Brookline schools were cut more than 20 percent in the last three years. Heating-oil consumption is down 52 percent, and during the 1982-83 academic year the district spent $118,000 less than it did the year before on total energy costs. Some $10,000 of the savings went into the pockets of custodians, while $17,000 was returned to the discretionary accounts of individual schools.

Now, as the summer draws to a close and his building's overhaul winds down, Seferian is getting ready for another task, one especially geared for custodians in elementary schools: ''Being like a grandfather to the younger children,'' he says. ''I make sure I get to know them, and they notice what I do. We all go to the same school.''

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