For Matt Brigandi, a custodian at Linwood Middle School in North Brunswick, every work day brings with it new challenges and opportunities to connect with students, colleagues, parents, and the community.
“Every day I strive to help build respect between our certificated staff and our educational support professional (ESP) members. Once the certificated staff can connect with us and build an alliance, together we can gain the respect of our communities and fight privatization and other attempts to derail our public schools.”
Brigandi began his career as a union bricklayer before starting his own construction business. He was often hired to do repair work at North Brunswick schools and he was encouraged to apply for a job by the people who worked there. After growing tired of the uncertainty of running his own business, Brigandi applied and was hired.
Sixteen years later, Brigandi has been named the 2014 NJEA Educational Support Professional (ESP) of the Year.
A family affair
In fact, education has become a family business. Years after she urged her husband to take a job with North Brunswick’s public schools, Denise joined him. She has been working as an educational support professional for about 10 years and recently became vice president of the secretarial unit. Their oldest son, Matthew, works as a paraprofessional in the district while working towards his degree at Rider University and a career as a school counselor. Their second son, Michael, attends Middlesex County College, studying environmental science at night, and works in food service in North Brunswick public schools during the day. Christopher, the youngest, is still in high school and is planning a career in law enforcement.
Matt’s sister Maria worked in the district as an inventory clerk, her husband Danny is in the Maintenance Department, and his sister Felicia currently works as an inventory clerk. Matt’s father was a proud union member in the bricklayer’s local, and his mom worked at a leather factory in the ‘50’s.
“When she saw or felt that someone was treated unfairly you better believe she spoke up. Luckily for her boss, she went to the hardest job of all - raising four children - and I was not easy,” said Brigandi. “We were raised to love our country and fight for fairness and not to be afraid to speak up, and believe me we do,” he added. Brigandi’s parents are now enjoying retirement in Florida.
“This explains why I am so passionate about our members who fought for us back in the day--and the fight we have today—along with the importance of setting the landscape of our future members.
“I love my job because I get to work with good people and I enjoy having the responsibility of taking care of the school building. Every day is a challenge and you never really know what to expect. I love the fact that every day something new can happen and people will count on me to solve the problem. I take great interest in what’s going on in our building because that helps me problem-solve and identify the best people to implement the solutions.”
Although he now lives in Monroe Township, Brigandi has a strong connection to North Brunswick.
“I’m proud to make my career here in North Brunswick. I’m a graduate of this district, as is my wife, and that helps us bring an even stronger connection to the work that we do. In fact, I met my wife when I was 15 years old. I walked her home one day and we’ve been together ever since.”
Brigandi is mindful of the importance of communicating the important work that ESPs do every day in New Jersey’s public schools. He and his colleagues have helped the district save $500,000 on electricity costs over the past five years by modifying heating and cooling systems based on the school schedule and being mindful of electricity usage. The district received an award for energy conservation and the PTA singled out Brigandi’s school for special consideration since they had one of the lowest rates of energy usage in the country. Upon meeting and talking with the PTA about this award, Brigandi was invited back to talk to parents about how to use non-chemical cleaners such as olive oil and vinegar to keep homes and school buildings clean without using harsh, potentially damaging chemicals.
Connecting with the community
By sharing his expertise in these areas with parents and the community, Brigandi is building a high level of confidence with the public about the efficiency and safety of the schools. In addition, he’s providing them with valuable information they can use in their own homes.
Brigandi made this school-home connection several years ago when he volunteered to work on a Butterfly Park. “I had the time and some tools that they needed so I stepped in. We planted butterfly bushes – which are just bushes that attract butterflies – as part of an elementary interdisciplinary unit on butterflies and their migratory patterns. I felt that it was important to get involved to show the PTA and community that custodians not only clean and maintain the schools, but that we contribute to the community, as well.
“That day at the park, students and parents kept coming up to me and thanking me for little things I’d done in the past – helping a student with a stuck locker, helping to retrieve a forgotten homework assignment – and I realized how important it is for people to make that connection with us. They really enjoy seeing us out in the community.
“Ever since then, I spend a lot of time making sure that the people I work with – custodians and maintenance employees – work closely to help out students, parents, and teachers. It builds a connection that really unites our school community.”
That connection has paid off in other ways, as well. Brigandi says that when the superintendent mentioned privatization as an option a few years ago, parents made sure that proposal got no traction.
ESPs and the association
Brigandi is an active member of his local association, as well. He currently serves as the vice president of the North Brunswick Township Education Association (NBTEA) for the Custodial/Maintenance/Grounds/Technology unit. For the past two contracts, he served on the NBTEA Negotiations Committee. He currently serves on the NBTEA Health and Safety Committee.
Brigandi also attends the NJEA ESP Conference and the NJEA Jim George Collective Bargaining Summit to help sharpen his skills and to gather information that is valuable to his colleagues as well as administrators.
“NJEA has helped me understand the need to educate people on the subtleties between custodial and maintenance work, job descriptions, and bumping and seniority rights. I’ve also used the tools and skills I’ve learned to help mediate issues among colleagues before they become bigger problems.”
Brigandi urges other ESP to take an active role in the association and to take pride in the work they do in New Jersey’s public schools.
“Hopefully many of our members have seen the excellent video that debuted at the NJEA Convention that highlights the roles of each of our ESPs. The video is called, ‘ESPs: We’re Essential, We Matter’. These everyday heroes are real people telling their own everyday stories. What a perfect way to drive home just some of the reasons privatization is wrong for our schools and our communities.”
As difficult as it is for people to communicate the value of the work they do for public school students, Brigandi sees the value in taking the time to do just that. Until parents and community members see the connection between the work ESPs do – on and off the clock – the risk of privatization, unrealistic regulations, and debilitating cost-cutting will remain high. Brigandi urges his colleagues to take pride in the work they do and to communicate that in word and deed.
“You know, as ESPs we say, ‘I’m just a custodian. I’m just an aide.’ We need to recognize our importance to the school community. Because if we don’t, no one else will either.”
Kathy Coulibaly is an NJEA associate director of communications. She can be reached at email@example.com.