HAINESPORT, New Jersey – The Hainesport Township School District needs to cut expenses, and officials think outsourcing the school’s custodial, maintenance and groundskeeping jobs to private, for-profit companies might be one way of doing so.
This has caused Hainesport’s school employee unions to launch a scare campaign against the concept of privatization. At a recent school board meeting, a handful of union supporters warned against letting “strangers” into the schools, and hinted that student safety might be compromised.
It’s a scenario being played out in communities all across the nation. Cash-strapped school boards are turning to private companies for huge savings, while school employee unions are fighting for their positions by resorting to every cheap scare tactic listed in the National Education Association’s ” Beat Privatization: A Step-by-Step Crisis Action Plan.”
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest labor union, has been hemorrhaging members for several years, and is desperate to retain as many dues-payers as possible – even if it means overwhelming thin school budgets with unnecessary labor costs.
When a school board tries to save money by hiring a few non-union workers to fill support positions, the unions react by trying to demonize private sector employees, as if they are not dedicated or moral enough to work in public schools.
It remains to be seen whether the scare tactics will have an effect on Hainesport, where the district’s tight budget has resulted in recent teacher layoffs and activity fees for after-school student organizations.
District officials are currently sorting through bids from various private contractors.
Currently, the individuals who clean and maintain school property are district employees. As such, they belong to a school employee union which collectively bargains for wages and benefits on their behalf. Unionized labor is a big reason why 75 percent of a typical school budget is consumed by labor costs.
Rose Krebs, who covers Hainesport Township School for PhillyBurbs.com, said privatization is just part of the district’s overall attempt to cut costs.
“It’s not unusual for districts to be doing this,” Krebs told EAG. “This is happening all across New Jersey.”
Schools report big savings, quality service
Privatization is happening in many other states as well. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) maintains a “Privatization Update” website, which tracks each new case of school outsourcing across the country.
The site, which is hostile to the idea of privatization, reads like a modern-day version of Richard Nixon’s “enemies list,” but it inadvertently makes an unmistakable point: Schools nationwide are using privatization to keep their budgets from going bust.
Schools that privatize clearly save money, and officials in most districts say the private contractors provide quality service and pose no more threat to students than any other type of school employee.
In Michigan, 295 of the 550 public school districts have outsourced for transportation, food service or custodial work, according to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Their cumulative annual savings are at least in the tens of millions, according to official at the center.
The Spring Lake school district in Michigan found the costs of using a private custodial service to clean its buildings ranged from 92 cents to 99 cents per square foot. The costs of school’s unionized custodians were $1.70 per square foot.
Oxford Community Schools, also in Michigan, outsourced its custodial work to a private company two years ago. The move will save the district $5 million over five years. Before privatization, Oxford was paying its union custodians between $65,000 and $72,000 annually in total compensation.
“That’s equal to or more than what we pay a first- or second-year teacher,” Superintendent William Skilling told EAG. “It’s not only about saving money. It’s about practicing good stewardship of the taxpayers’ money.”
The savings have allowed Oxford schools to add teachers and student programs during a time when most schools are cutting both. The district has also had four record fund balances in a row.
“Our school district has never been in a better financial situation, even though this is the worst economy of my lifetime,” Skilling said.
But what about the union’s dire warnings about the dangers of privatization?
“They don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” Skilling said.
Scorched earth campaign
But school finances are not a concern for the unions. They just want to preserve as many jobs as possible for dues-paying members, and often use a deceitful, scorched earth campaign to fight privatization.
Unions suggest that allowing private companies into schools jeopardizes everything from student safety to a school’s ability to schedule last-minute field trips. It’s an emotion-based, fact-free hit job, designed to scare school boards and taxpayers back into the arms of Big Labor.
Many of the anti-privatization arguments come directly from the NEA itself. In its “Beat Privatization” playbook, the union manual provides a list of talking points, such as, “Strangers in our schools are hazardous to everyone’s health and well-being.”
The manual also warns that, “Contractors bring in a revolving door of faceless, nameless employees with low wages, small or nonexistent benefit packages, and substandard working conditions.”
We’re pretty sure these people have faces and names, just like union employees.
A memo circulated by the Michigan Education Association – “ Talking Points on Contracting Out” – ramps up the rhetoric even further:
” … [T]he quality of services provided by outside vendors is disappointing – in some cases so poor that health and safety are serious concerns. … Because vendors maximize profit by minimizing expenses, they may cut costs in invisible areas such as cheaper bus brake linings, cheaper more noxious custodial supplies to which children are exposed, etc.”
The truth of the matter
David Hobson is the executive director of the National School Transportation Association, a group that represents private busing contractors. Hobson said union scare tactics about quality and safety are misguided.
“In many cases, our drivers have to go through much more stringent checks for their licensing than district employees do,” Hobson told EAG.
Hobson added that private contractors focus heavily on safety. That seems to make sense. If a private company wants to stay in business, it will carefully screen and monitor employees, and the quality of service they provide. If school boards aren’t pleased with the performance, the company could lose the contract.
As much as unions hate to admit it, the profit motive usually produces quality service.
Another major point is the ease with which a private contractor can dismiss a non-union employee who was doing a sub-par job in a public school. Compare that to the difficultly of firing a union cook or custodian that isn’t up to snuff. The union would automatically defend that employee, meaning it could take months or years of litigation to part ways with the employee, and cost the school thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Hobson also rejects the notion that private employees are nameless, faceless workers who don’t care about the children. He noted that private busing companies want employees who are familiar with the area, and oftentimes hire the district’s former drivers.
“Many of our drivers have been in their jobs for years and years. The drivers love these kids, and they do develop relationships with them,” Hobson said.
While nobody should rejoice over school employees losing their jobs, it is important to remember the purpose of public education.
“We have to remember why schools exist,” Skilling said. “We’re not an employment agency. We’re here to educate students.”