By Kelly Hagen,

It’s a cold February day in Minot, and Central Campus High School custodian Bruce Schonberger is five hours into a typical day on the job. He’s already cleaned the lower gym and classroom, office area, guidance office, biology department and the lower tech ed department, and all that before the doors opened for students at 7:30 a.m. He’s helped to monitor students as they arrive to school, then set up tables in the upper commons area for special needs students to have art class. After doing some more general cleaning tasks and a short break, he’s back to setting up more tables in the commons area for students to have lunch. He’s quickly eaten his own lunch with his colleagues, checked for any lights and ballasts that are out, and cleaned up an energy drink that a student spilled. Now it’s 10 a.m. on a mostly typical day on the job, in the midst of a less-than-typical school year for Schonberger. This past October 24, he showed up for a normal day of work and was surprised to find himself at the center of an award ceremony as the 2023 North Dakota United Education Support Professional of the Year.

“It was real surprising,” Schonberger said. “I don’t do it for the awards; it’s my job. I want to do it right. And when people were asking me about all the different things I do, I never really thought of all the different things I do for the union. It just never occurred to me, like why I do this. … It was just normal for me to do all this stuff. So, yeah, to be awarded this award was really just beyond my belief.”

“Education support professionals, whatever their jobs, play a vital role in the education of our students across North Dakota,” ND United President Nick Archuleta said. “Custodians are charged with keeping the learning environments accessible, clean and safe for kids, and they take these responsibilities seriously. Bruce is a sterling example of the men and women who don’t just take pride in maintaining the buildings in which our children learn, but also take pride in being part of the team that supports these kids every day. He has proven himself to be a confidant and trusted advisor to many young people as they work their way through school.”

Schonberger has worked for Minot Public Schools for over a decade, starting at Lewis and Clark Elementary School before moving over to Central High. In her nomination letter for Bruce, Minot Education Association President Kristi Reinke said that, in addition to his custodial and building maintenance responsibilities, he also serves on the MPS Safety Committee and helps handle emergencies and unexpected problems at one of the largest schools in the district.

“One of his favorite things is to have the opportunity to be out in the halls with the students,” Reinke said. “Particularly, he loves to spend time with the special-needs kids in his school. He shares high-fives, helping them when they are having rough times and being there for the special times. Seeing their smiles makes my days better, as I am certain, seeing his face makes their days better, as well!”

Schonberger confirms that it’s his interactions with students – as big as watching them grow up and getting to know them and their parents, or as simple as a shared high-five in the hallways – are always a highlight of his job.

“I started in elementary, and this is probably my last year that I’ll have kids that I remember from elementary coming up and they still remember me from back in elementary school,” he said, as Central Campus is being renovated into a middle school, starting next year.

“They’ll still come up and say hi,” Schonberger continued, “and kids are just kind of in awe that … why are you saying hi to the custodian? (And they’ll answer), I’ve known him since I was little. And for them to remember that all the way through up until now, it’s real special and that means something.”

While teachers, paras and school counselors are always on hand for students to talk to about their problems, anxieties or the parts of student life that make them happy, it’s often the administrative staff, like the school secretaries and custodians, who can earn a special level of trust and confidence.

“You know, kids don’t look at the custodians as an authority figure,” Schonberger said. “They’re looking at more of the normal, everyday person to where they can talk to us and we can help them out with different things. And we listen to them and try to give them the best advice we can. … There are times where, okay, maybe we should go talk to a counselor about it, and I’ll come with you, until you’re comfortable, and then I’ll let them do their job. But we’re more of the normal, everyday person type. We don’t wear a suit and tie. We’re not telling you what to do all the time. So, (maybe) it’s more relaxing to talk to a custodian or the cooks or even the secretaries, you know.”

Schonberger has also been extremely involved with his local association and all of the ESPs who work with him in Minot. He is the financial officer for Local #52, which consists of custodian classified staff in Minot. Their local is the only group of education support professionals who negotiate a collective bargaining agreement regularly with their school district, due to past practice that dates back to before the 1969 legislation that formalized the collective bargaining for teachers in the state.

“We use it as a big recruitment tool,” Schonberger said. “Our benefits are the same as the teachers. Most of our negotiations, basically they negotiate first, and they do our wages and benefits. And then, after they’re done, we negotiate. … We work with the teachers on how well that’s going to work, and so far it’s all been real quick lately because the big (topics) are done. So, if we have some minor things we want to try to change, we discuss that over negotiations.”

He regularly attends monthly Building Representative meetings of the Minot Education Association and reports on the work his local is doing for their schools. He is also the vice president of the Central Labor Council of the ND AFL-CIO.

Next up for Schonberger is the National Education Association’s ESP of the Year Award competition. Each year, the NEA and NEA Member Benefits select one ESP member from among all the state nominees to receive national recognition at the annual NEA ESP National Conference. This year’s conference is scheduled in Seattle on March 24-26.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Schonberger said about the national conference, and he plans to take his wife along with him. “They have some really great workshops to go to. … I’ve been to Seattle before, and we get some free time, so we’ll do a little sightseeing.”

As for possibly winning the national award, Schonberger said the truly special rewards he’s received during his career have been the relationships he’s built over the years, with his co-workers and the students he’s watched grow into adults. “My first day of actual school,” Schonberger said, “when I started at Lewis and Clark Elementary, I had three young ladies that (had) been friends for a long time, and I was nervous. I hadn’t worked in the public sector in a long time. They could tell I was nervous, and they started talking to me and we became friends. Two of the girls, I knew their dad from high school way back when. … They were third grade. So, the next couple of years we were really close, and their moms and dads, I was friends with them, too. … And when they came up here and I was here, they would talk to me still. They needed some tables and chairs at graduation. So, they called me, and I was able to arrange to get them some, help haul them up there and set them up with them and take them back. And just last summer, one of them got married, and I got an invitation and attended the wedding. … When you can be included in the family stuff, that is real special, even after years have gone by.”