Saturday, December 1, 2007

I agree with the MEA

Iris Salters, MEA President, offered this article for her monthly contribution to the Detroit News “Labor Voices” series:

Detroit News: Schools get conned on privatization (11/30/07)

Her article contained a point that I absolutely agree with:

“The duping of school board members around the state is common.”

Let me say that again: I agree with the MEA.

Contractors and consultants dupe school boards. Superintendents and other administrators dupe them. And the union dupes them.

It’s a shame that the public – and the media – doesn’t pay more attention to the absurd practices of school boards.

The balance of her article is a clever mix of unrelated facts designed to spin the issue. It’s interesting to read the MEA’s perspective on Hartland’s decision to outsource, and save nearly $14,000 per custodian.

It’s even more interesting to see the MEA use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain district emails when it suits their purpose, but then file a lawsuit to block a similar FOIA when it might embarrass them. You may recall
a blog entry from May of this year highlighting a FOIA for emails from Chetly Zarko, and the efforts of the MEA to block it.

I thought it might be interesting to look at Ms. Salter’s article point-by-point, so I’ve dissected it below.


Friday, November 30, 2007
Iris Salters: Labor Voices
Schools get conned on privatization
Private firms don't deliver better services than public support employees

The U.S. military outsourced parts of its role in the Iraqi war. Now, Blackwater contractors are under investigation in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.

Let’s start by setting the tone with irrelevant references to an unpopular war, and mention an incident associated with an outside contractor. Is this potential problem meant to serve as an indictment of the whole concept of outsourcing? And, didn’t we have similarly unfortunate incidents with a few rogue U.S. soldiers, who are NOT outsourced?

And what does this have to do with outsourced noninstructional services?

Manufacturing jobs were sent to China -- and we've seen millions of toys shipped here recalled because of safety concerns.

You can look here for toy recalls:

Not every recalled toy is from China. And not every toy “outsourced” to China has been recalled.

I’m sure many of the teaching tools used in the classroom today are manufactured in China too, whether it’s supplies, like pens and globes, or high tech gadgets like smart whiteboards. This has been going on for years.

What does this have to do with outsourcing noninstructional services?

As Americans, we should be gravely concerned whenever politicians and corporate chief executives fail to put safety first. We should be especially vigilant about outsourcing of public-sector jobs because taxpayer dollars are at stake -- and so, too, are some of our most vulnerable citizens, our children.

Nothing that anyone can disagree with here.

More and more public schools and other public agencies are hiring private contractors that promise to do the same work for less money. In education, private contractors are allowed to perform noninstructional jobs -- from driving buses to cleaning classrooms to coaching sports. Because they interact with children, we must make sure that those who work in the education setting meet the highest standards.

Again, nothing that anyone can disagree with here.

And yet, outsourcing of public school support personnel is accepted in many districts. Why? Because it may cost less without sacrificing quality -- or so school boards are promised. School boards are conned into believing a private company can provide the same service for a lower price. And school board members, so focused on the bottom line, ignore reasonable concerns about student safety.

Whoa… we just made a huge jump. The article sets the stage by painting the concept of outsourcing as evil and unsafe using unrelated anecdotal examples, and then reaches the conclusion here – or at least implies – that those performing outsourced noninstructional educational services are providing lower quality, and doing so in an unsafe way.

In other words, the article is trying to suggest if China makes unsafe toys, then outsourcing custodial services must be unsafe too. And therefore, any school board that outsources has been “conned”, and is “ignoring reasonable concerns”.

Sadly, some of our most cash-starve schools don't have the financial resources to pay for books, paper, qualified teachers, expert bus drivers and conscientious custodians, so privatizationi can appear to be a good idea.

Yes, union-backed school boards, agreeing to unaffordable labor contracts, have left most schools cash-starved.

The duping of school board members around the state is common. Privatization proponents tell them that private companies must perform well, or the district can fire the company. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, we've seen plenty of situations where privatization hasn't panned out, and school boards refuse to do anything, often because the cost to terminate the contract early is prohibitive.

Yes, it does sound reasonable to fire a company if it’s not doing well, just as it would be reasonable to fire an employee if they are not doing well. But it’s a bit ironic that the MEA would advocate the dismissal of a contractor when they won’t allow any of their members to be dismissed without some big legal battle. Doesn’t the contractor deserve the same chance (or 20) to remedy the problem?

Ms. Salters is probably right that some school boards are dumb enough to sign a contract without some sort of escape clause, or allow themselves to get painted into a corner with no cost-effective way to terminate. But that is a problem with incompetent school boards and their poor negotiating/management skills, and has nothing to do with the concept of outsourcing.

Consider Hartland Consolidated Schools.

The Hartland school board voted in 2006 to lay off the district's custodians and hire a private company to do their work. Despite public claims that the switch has gone well, public records obtained by the Michigan Education Association detail scores of complaints from school employees about the company's poor service.

Costly contracts with companies

The complaints, documented in e-mails requested under the Freedom of Information Act, show a range of concerns. From dirty classrooms and bathrooms to unlocked and unsecured school buildings, the e-mails illustrate the pitfalls of privatization in public education.

I have no clue whether Hartland is effectively managing its contractor.

What I instead thought was interesting was the MEA’s use of the FOIA laws to obtain emails. You may recall that when a private citizen tried to FOIA emails from Howell schools, the MEA sued to block that (I wrote about there here). I cannot imagine anything more hypocritical!

Claims that privatization would save an estimated $500,000 in the first year without sacrificing quality haven't materialized.

Strange how the MEA is patient when it comes to academic achievement, but is not patient when it comes to cleaning toilets. Whenever student achievement drops, such as the scores on the new Michigan Merit Exam (MME), the common line calls for patience, saying, “This is the first year we’ve taken this test. Give us some time.”

It's also worth taking note of employee turnover in Hartland: After the first six months, 15 of the 36 custodians placed by the private company in the district were no longer working there (six additional employees didn't make it past the probationary period).

What were the reasons for the turnover? Many of these privatization transitions include provisions in which existing employees are transferred to the private contractor. Could they have left out of resentment? Could they have been responsible for the poor work outlined a few paragraphs earlier, perhaps sabotaging the transition effort, and been dismissed?

Simply knowing the turnover rate does not provide us with enough information to reasonably reach a conclusion.

Despite these problems, a local newspaper quoted a top district official as saying privatization is working.

School officials are reluctant to admit when privatization doesn't work. Sometimes, it's a pride issue. Or, it may be the penalties built into contracts with privateers. In Hartland, firing the private firm in the first year would have cost $180,000 in addition to the fees for work completed, according to the contract between the district and the company.

Well again, who knows what kind of dopey contract was rubber-stamped by the board. But even ignoring that and just looking at the numbers, it would appear that the district was going to save $500,000 per year, so even paying the $180,000 would leave them substantially ahead.

In our cash-strapped state, districts are doing everything they can to pinch pennies. School employees, too, have accepted lower wages and switched health plans to help districts balance their budgets.

First of all, schools boards may be pinching pennies, but they are stepping over dollars to do so. They ignore opportunities for consolidation, most won't consider privatization, and the cost increases for health benefits continue to rob dollars from the classroom. They award contracts on a no-bid basis, and squander millions each year holding private May elections.

But that aside, consider the numbers presented in the article. The 36 staff custodians were costing the district $500,000 more than the 36 outsourced custodians. That means each custodian employee was costing the district approximately $13,900 more PER YEAR. As high as that number seems, it’s quite realistic when you look at the cost of the union health insurance and retirement benefits.

But opting to hand public money to private companies while firing the dedicated school support personnel who care deeply about students should not be a path districts follow. At the end of the day, these employees are your neighbors -- they support local businesses and pay taxes. They care about the success of their communities' children. No bottom line is worth harming a community that deeply.

Any sort of layoff is tragic. But I’m curious why it’s assumed that the employees working for the contractor are NOT our neighbors, and why we’re lead to believe that they don’t pay taxes or care about children.

We all know the adage that you get what you pay for. Privatization is proof that it's true. When districts try to do things on the cheap, students, taxpayers and the entire community pay.


Anonymous said...

Private contracors are not always better. Yes her statements linking bad behavior in an unpopular war have nothing to do with schools here. However, we have had many kids left on busses late after school in Michigan and most of these events involved contract supplied bus companies.

Rochested had considered outsourcing the transportation and we found out that we would not save money. We also upset many of our employees in the process. What opportuinty cost would you put on that ill will?

Rochester and Avondale were in talks and negotiations to CONSOLIDATE some services many years ago. Some local politics got in the way and killed it. You either don't know the history of this district or you want to sperad more missinformation regarding consolidation.

You can stop using the won't and never consider statements regarding consolidation. It has been attempted here. Look into it! Rochester Schools have a history that pre-dates you Mike. If you would look into our history and consider some of the LONG term characteristics of this district, you might fare better with those you support for elections.

Our food service makes money so why outsource it?

Now my last counter points regarding when outsourcing goes bad.

It's just our own kids in the hands of these NON screened individuals. News story after news story has examples of people that slip through the security cracks and get near our kids.

When these contractors start to do a much better job of policing themselves, We should consider hiring them.

So for now we need to pick the right services and right contractors. It isn't easy and they don't always save us money.

Second; if a contractor takes our money and then quits or stops the service we can sue him or try other remedy to get the money back.

But in the short run we are screwed. We already paid and the show must go on.

Ask yourself this. How will I (A Trustee) explain to a parent why saving a few bucks made their child expendable?

Mowing lawns, fixing pot holes in parking lots, repairing equipment, no problem.

Driving around way out in rural Oakland Township alone with my kid, preparing food for my kid, cleaning the inside of the building with full access to my kid, NO way!

Mike Reno said...

First of all, this article was simply intended to point out the absurdity of the MEA's arguments against it.

With the support boardmembers have received from the union, I don't think they would ever SERIOUSLY consider outsourcing, and I'm not about to propose it unless others would give it a fair shake.

Can you please provide links to the stories involving the outsourced bus drivers? I believe that is a red herring argument, but am open to considering any objective information you may have. I've looked around and cannot find anything other than alarmist opinions.

I invite you to review the transportation outsourcing bid at Rochester; it was a complete sham. They would've required the contractor to hire a substantial percentage of the current district employees at their current wage, with the same benefits. It was amazing how that requirement drove the price to be roughly equal to what the district is already paying.

I am well aware of the ONE effort Rochester and Avondale considered -- years ago -- in conjunction with the City of Rochester Hills. They looked at creating a single maintenance depot. Avondale backed-out for some reason, and that one effort made years ago is now frequently used as "proof" that consolidation has been considered. And, it's also used as an excuse for having no further discussions. I've raised the idea with the Rochester board -- twice -- that the board consider some sort of informal discussions with Avondale, and the point that Avondale backed-out years ago was offered as a reason for not considering any further discussions with them.

As far as the safety issue goes, there is no reason a district couldn't write in a requirement to do the same background checks it currently does, and subject them to independent audits.

Anonymous said...

Mike Reno said:

"First of all, schools boards may be pinching pennies, but they are stepping over dollars to do so. They ignore opportunities for consolidation, most won't consider privatization, and the cost increases for health benefits continue to rob dollars from the classroom."

I am an MEA union member who was on a committee at our community college that looked at feasible plans to run our college bookstore. We looked at both in-house options (continuing to have the college fund and operate the bookstore) and outsourcing options.

In the end, our team--and I personally--voted to outsource the bookstore to Follett. It has proven to be a good decision so far. Now: it's proven to be a good decision for a couple of unique reasons that in no way proves outsourcing is a blanket cure for all situations: 1) The college had allowed the infrastructure of the bookstore to remain stagnant for a long period of time and upgrades to technology would have been nearly impossible without outside help 2) The bookstore manager, a non-union employee, was retiring after several decades of service and he was the only employee receiving benefits affected.

Because of the unique circumstances--the bookstore needing literally 6-figures worth of upgrades--and the fact no college employees were going to get brutally whacked, it made sense to outsource operations to a company that had a proven track record. And I will go on record now and say I was part of that process (even though certain folks--not you, Mike--will no doubt misuse this information from me in an attempt to discredit what I stand for).

Other issues: 1) The war in Iraq. According to Bart Stupak, the war in Iraq will cost each man, woman, and child in the United States of America $8,000. And counting. Where is the outcry from the conservative think tanks about this? Instead we see the Education Action Group whining because district________ would *allegedly* save ______________a year if the districts foisted more cost and risk onto the backs of the hardworking teachers, staff (all of them themselves taxpayers, mind you) of Michigan. That's not "tripping over dollars to save pennies"--that's tripping over armored trucks to save pennies.

Another issue: FOIAs:

I've had personal experience with such things recently. When I challenged Kyle Olson (EAG) about one of his editorials in the Detroit News, his response was FIRST to contact the president of our college and, essentially, ask her if she might be able to do something about her uppity employee (my paraphrase). After I printed my own editorial in the Escanaba Daily Press saying that I had been a member of our college's health care ad-hoc team that had studied costs (the result being we found MESSA to be the most cost-effective for us when comparing apples to apples), Olson filed FOIA with our college. That I have no problem with at all.

When he posted his "findings" at the EAG blog (look for it under "thug watch"--I'm there), I shared the information he posted with our VP--the very person he obtained the information from at our college and the person whom he alludes to in his blog. It was her opinion that Olson spun the information to suit his purposes.

There has been one or two other things that have happened I can't divulge right now, other than to say it's been apparent to me that someone, somewhere has taken the time out of his or her busy schedule to take a personal interest in me.

The above is completely relevant to your story here. The EAG is linked to your site. You quoted them prominently in your November blog; Olson (or Doster or whomever writes the blog at EAG) links to your blog.

Anonymous said...

Bill Milligan said:

I posted the above reply. I quoted a paragraph of Mike's to start my reply (the part with the quotation marks around it) but after that small part the rest is my response. I apologize for any confusion the formatting of the message might have caused. said...

Mike Reno agrees with the MEA? Careful, they'll quote you on that!


Lone_Heckler said...

It will be a very cold day in you know where before Mike actually agrees with the MEA.

I.P. Address Marco Polo time.

This was the first time in two (2) years that I could not get my employer to reschedule a buisness trip in order to attend a board meeting.

If one cares they will make more effort.

Anonymous said...

Considering how gaseous and UTTERLY meaningless Rochester school board meetings are, ask yourself what your employers might be trying to tell you by clearing the decks so you can attend?

Give that some long, hard thought fella.