Cleaning the University of Minnesota just got $3.1 million cheaper.

The university's Twin Cities campus has cut 52 custodial positions through early retirements and spots left open -- without a single layoff.

But mopping, scrubbing and vacuuming just as much square footage with 52 fewer people will be tough.

"Can you improve what you do with fewer people?" said Mike Berthelsen, associate vice president for Facilities Management. His department thinks it has figured out how.

The union representing the custodians disagrees.

This week, the hundreds of people who keep campus clean switched strategies. In the past, one custodian might have been responsible for part of a single building -- bagging garbage, cleaning bathrooms and vacuuming carpet. Now, that custodian handles just one duty -- say, vacuuming -- for a larger area, as part of a team.

The U says that the team method is more efficient; a custodian won't have to run back and forth to get the next tool.

The union says it is less accountable; a custodian won't develop relationships with a building's quirks.

"It is absolutely going to destroy that pride that people have in an area," said Sue Mauren, the principal officer for Teamsters Local 320, which represents the custodians.

The union also argues that the move violates the contract and has filed a grievance, Mauren said. The U believes it has worked within the contract's constraints, Berthelsen said.

Both sides are pleased that the U was able to cut millions of dollars from its operations without a layoff. Both sides say they'll watch carefully to see whether things are kept clean.

The $3.1 million in annual savings is just one example of how the U is becoming more efficient in the face of state funding cuts, Berthelsen said, "so we can focus money on the core mission."

It hasn't come without investment. The U is spending about $1.5 million on new equipment, greener chemicals and a training location.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168