Where is the line for saving money?
Who will be inside your child’s school?
by Craig Masters
Thompson School District is looking to make a major change in the way the students are protected from everything ranging from their everyday health through cleanliness to exposure to persons whose criminal backgrounds will go unchecked by the school district; yes even pedophiles could soon be working in our children’s classrooms.
If taxpayers don’t speak out to nip this in the bud, this community could soon get shafted by Thompson School District. There is nationwide evidence that students, teachers and the community will all suffer if the school board allows a for-profit company to replace school district staff.
Privatizing public sector jobs has become big business. Every job from prison guard to firefighter has been outsourced to private contractors somewhere. In school systems, transportation and food service have been the most popular areas to privatize. It seems, at first, to be a way to cut cost. The idea sounds so simple: hire a private contractor to hire employees at lower wages and no benefits and save the district the difference. Thompson School District has begun the process of contracting out custodial services. So far the process has involved only some tours of a few facilities by locally connected cleaning service contractors in preparation of a Request for Proposal (RFP). But research supporting this article reveals that even the RFP process has been abandoned by school districts who took the time to understand a school community is not a company in the private sector and cannot be managed like one.
Michigan, where communities were among the earliest to suffer losses of revenues due to the current recession, has turned to for-profit contractors to try to save money in at least one of three service areas in more than half the state’s 550 school districts, according to the Mackinaw Center for Public Policy. Those areas are food, custodial, and transportation. The savings in dollars are undeniable but the costs to the communities are beginning to offset those savings in more than a few critical areas: health, safety, and quality of life in the community.
But is there a relationship to school and community quality when schools privatize these jobs? In trying to find the answer to that question, Michigan seemed like the best place to start. Michigan schools now spend above the national average per pupil but have fallen in rank regularly since 2003 and slipped 12 places to 39th nationally for school year 2006-2007; a year many districts contracted out non-instructional services. But Michigan has also lost population at a greater rate than nearly any other state. The popular newspaper coverage of the decline in schools is to blame the relocation of the families with a disproportionate number of the top students.
The only real trend that might suggest a cause and effect relationship between Michigan’s rush toward privatization and school performance might be that performance in the central counties where privatization is less popular continues to be above average more often than in those counties where privatization contracts have been in effect longer.
Nevertheless, absent a formal analysis in Michigan, the Detroit Free Press published an article in September 2011, about the ‘trickle down’ negative economic affect of privatization of school jobs on the local community.
And in a report that stunned supporters of privatization entitled, “Evaluation and Cost-Benefit Analysis to Outsource Food and Janitorial Services” released by the state of Michigan January, 2009, the Michigan Department of Community Health concluded, “DCH does not support privatizing food service operations at the four Hospital/Centers.”
The report concluded, “Other factors must be considered in the determination of whether or not to privatize janitorial/custodial service operations. The first and most serious consideration is the safety of both the patients and the contractual workers and corresponding liability. Janitorial staff work directly in residential buildings and have regular, close contact with patients including medical and human waste. (secondly)…Substantial initial and ongoing training would be required for contractual staff who would work in environments where patients reside. Training would include health, safety, and HIPAA requirements. It would be challenging to find a quality, reliable janitorial vendor willing to work in a Hospital/Center environment. … A third consideration is the daily interaction of State staff with the patients. Janitorial staff work in close contact with patients in the residential units and play an important role in the treatment of patients that would not exist under a contractual relationship.”
The recommendation based on this extensive analysis: “Due to the small estimated potential savings, DCH does not support privatizing janitorial /custodial services at the five hospitals/centers.”
Substitute the word student for patient and teacher for staff and you have a very realistic study of the considerations needed to begin to properly evaluate removing experienced custodians from our schools. It would be very hard for Thompson District facilities director Brian Erickson, the face of this current push, to quantify those ‘other considerations’ a contract. As indicated in the extensive Michigan study, which must considered more extensive than whatever Mr. Erickson is basing his plans on, interaction between janitorial staff and others could not be quantified in a contract. The detrimental affect on both staff and patients was more than a minor concern in the final recommendation to not privatize these services.
How will Mr. Erickson handle these subjective values? No evidence could be found that anyone has thus far been able to address these issues in a contract with a for-profit contractor. In fact, all the evidence is to the contrary.
Cost and services was also the focus of a study found in Ohio, another mid-west state hard hit by recession in auto manufacturing and where much private contracting has also taken place.
A detailed report covering the private bus services contractor FirstStudent in Cincinnati Public Schools reveals millions of dollars lost by the school system when the contract was altered to allow FirstStudent to purchase used busses instead of new ones. But the estimated $5million went into FirstStudent profits, not back into the schools. The article is filled with parent testimony about busses that never show up or run so late the kids miss classes. According to the report, bus driver turnover has resulted in some unfamiliarity with routes by some drivers.
Bus driver turn over is only one problem for FirstStudent. In addition to its problems in Cincinnati, the State of Ohio Department of Transportation has placed FirstStudent on probation for various violations including safety and personnel training involving its contract with the city of Dayton, Ohio. The Dayton Daily News reports that violence at school transportation transfer points has cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in police presence. Eventually a new bus station was built.
One of the most comprehensive studies of school services privatizing was produced in 2008 by the University of Oregon, Labor and Education Research Center. That study entitled, ”All Costs Considered: A NEW Analysis on the Contracting Out of School Support Services in Oregon,” was actually a follow-up to a study released in 2004 and offers the advantage of comparing data collected over several years.
The Executive Summary of the study begins:
“Following a sharp acceleration in the contracting out of school support services throughout Oregon in recent years, the Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) at the University of Oregon conducted a study of this practice that was released in June 2004. The study raised questions about the quality of service provided by contractors and the social and economic costs to workers and communities when school support services, most notably transportation, custodial, and food services, are placed under private management.
It also found that the cost savings for school districts promised by private contractors often did not fully materialize. This follow-up study reviews some of the issues we first examined in
While the entire 68-page report should be required reading for every member of the Thompson School Board, it is probably more critical for every parent. The administration staff is following a path that is already well-worn and proven to be the ‘low road’ to higher costs at the expense of the students and the community.
Parents whose children ride the buses can read of numerous problems of safety, increased costs when purchase contracts get postponed or altered. There is possibility of bus drivers without proper training and worse.
The first janitorial contract for one district detailed in the Oregon study was canceled after only six months due to lack of performance. And that contractor was replaced with the French-owned services giant Sodexo Inc. which already had the food service contract. Since the time of the study Sodexo has agreed to pay $20 million to settle claims that it overcharged 21 New York school districts and the State University of New York over a five-year span. In other Sodexo news, Chicago parents found lunches being served that lacked – almost everything nutritious.
Just some of the continuous problems of custodial outsourcing detailed in the Oregon report are some of those same concerns found by the state of Michigan in their analysis for the Department of Community Health and are similar to the lawsuit in New York.
The Oregon study states, “Inconsistent quality and high turnover of employees is a direct result of the contractors’ operating strategy of making money by keeping wages and benefits low, cutting costs of materials, and reduced or no training on every aspect of a school’s unique custodial requirements. Turnover among school support staff can have an effect on the quality of service by stripping districts of experienced workers who feel that they are an integral part of a school building’s team. This can especially be true in custodial services where workers perform many tasks outside the purview of their official job description that enhance the safety, security, and overall atmosphere of the school environment.”
Why do Thompson School District administrators think they can succeed against overwhelming odds in favor of failure?
Whatever their answer is to that question must be dismissed as vanity and not reality. Parents need to act now and with demanding force before one of those for-profit mega corporations get our superintendent’s cabinet off to some resort retreat and land a contract worth millions of our community’s dollars at the expense of student, teacher, and community health and safety.
A petition now being circulated in Loveland in support of “local control and accountability” identifies just one more reason to oppose privatization. When a private corporation gains control, the citizens lose accountability of their tax dollars. Freedom of Information law does not apply to private corporations. As hard as it is to force Thompson School District to release ‘public’ documents, it is still better than being totally shut out by a contractor.
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