Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Just Say No To Privatization

I have been trying to keep an open mind about the proposals regarding AAPS budget cuts. For the most part, I think the instructional ideas are sound, and many of them should have been done sooner. And in a couple of days, I should have my own list of proposals for budget cuts and revenue enhancements.

Where the district misses the boat, however, is in the non-instructional proposals. It is time, now, to say NO to privatization of busing and custodial work.

It is time, now, to raise a ruckus about it. Did you know that RFPs have already been posted? You can read them here. And I suspect that it is a good idea to look at the bids archive to get an idea of all the things the district bids out to others. I find it hard to believe that the district, with thousands of employees, could not have done the REMS (crisis management) grant in-house, for example. This is likely an area for cost savings. But I digress. This post is about why the district is exploring privatization, and why it is a bad idea.

I have a lot of issues with privatization. Considering that the custodial and bus driver unions have not had a contract since 2008 (according to the budget information from AAPS), and are currently "in mediation," I wonder if this is actually a union-busting technique.
First: There is an alternative. Do we want our bus drivers and custodians to take a pay cut? Honestly, I think everybody in AAPS will have to take a pay cut! The question is, how does that happen?
At Washtenaw County, the administrator worked with all the unions to get concessions. The process was more or less above board, and guess what? The unions made concessions. Let's work to get the unions to make concessions. That is the model we should follow.

I love teachers. Heck, I am one, even if I don't work in a school district now. But schools do not rest solely on the backs of teachers, although we might like to believe that they do. The bus drivers and custodians have pride of ownership in the schools too. That is worth something to me.

I am concerned about losing control of school maintenance and school busing. A school district can write whatever it wants into a privatized contract, but when it comes down to an employee doing a poor job, if someone else is controlling their hiring and firing, AAPS may not be able to fire them or send them to training.

At the budget meeting that I went to, several people at my table raised concerns about privatization. They wondered what the actual (not projected) savings were when the food service was privatized (the facilitator didn't know). They talked about how satisfaction (on the part of people who eat the lunches) had gone down. And they wondered about the effects on the "lunch ladies."

"Well," our facilitator said, "I believe that the new company hired everyone who wanted to be hired, for the same wages, and the only thing they lost was retirement benefits."

Oh, really? Well, that's kind of a big thing, don't you think? Hello, Ms. Facilitator (who has been with the district for over 20 years)--how would you feel about losing your retirement benefits? And how much did the district save?

According to Chai Montgomery's article in,
In 2006, more than 30 workers lost their union protections when the school district privatized its food services. The district expected to save about $500,000 per year by doing so. Roland Zullo, a research scientist with the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Labor Employment and the Economy, studied this privatization. While a detailed follow-up study to determine exact figures remains to be done, Zullo says decisively that “the food deal did not return the 500k annual savings that the district originally claimed.” While it “appears to have reduced costs” in its first year, “the service costs jumped back up” in the following year. “So, the savings, if any, were short term.”
(Chai himself is not only a union leader but an AAPS graduate.)

According to the UM press release, Zullo says that,
While public schools that privatize their food operations save about 15 percent on labor and 4 percent on food, they end up spending 11 percent more on contractor fees and 4 percent more for supplies.
Read the full privatization study here. 

WHY on earth should we be balancing the AAPS budget on the backs of the people who get paid the least? These people don't make that much to begin with; the proposals assume that we keep the buses and mechanics, so there won't be savings there.

How many people are we talking about? According to the RFPs, there are 166 custodial and maintenance positions, and 180 bus positions (including bus aides). As far as I'm concerned, I don't want to be part of busting their union, either. If they no longer want their union, let them dissolve it themselves.
Side note: I've been a member of a union, but I'm not one now. Sure, administrators would rather impose plans on non-union employees, then negotiate with a union, but from the point of view of employees that is not necessarily the best thing. A lot of the benefits that I, as a non-union employee of a large organization, receive, are benefits that I only get because the unions paved the way.

Message to the teachers union: Support the bus drivers and custodians in their efforts to stop privatization. Don't stand idly by. Unity=Strength.

I cannot think about this without thinking about the context of class divisions in our society. Take myself, for example, a middle class mom. Aside from the teachers in my children's schools, I know well over 30 teachers in the district. I know exactly one bus driver, and one custodian. And yet--that bus driver has children in the district, and that custodian has grandchildren in the district. How many of the bus drivers and custodians have family in the district? If the bus driver loses his job, or needs to move to get one that has job security, we may lose those children from the district.

There are alternatives:
We could negotiate--open, and above board--for wage and benefit concessions. At the county the cuts ended up being around 3%, and people are paying more for benefits. But let's apply wage and benefit cuts to all employees in the district. Let's not balance the budget on the people who get paid the least. If anything, people at the top should take bigger cuts.

We could work with AATA so that high school students who are served by AATA take the public bus. Sure, it wouldn't work for everyone. But for my kids it would not be a problem. The public bus is just as far as the AATA bus stop. That would not only reduce the need for busing, it would also save energy. I'd rather see fewer drivers (which can probably be dealt with through attrition) and no privatization.

In closing: Let's not privatize. Instead, let's negotiate in good faith. Our bus drivers and custodians are vested in our schools, and our schools are worth it.

Side note: I took the picture, above, from a blog post about desegregation bussing in Boston. It looked informative.


  1. They absolutely are union busting, and they are doing it to those who they can do. Low hanging fruit.
    I totally agree with you. The school should not privatize. I equate privatizing with pirateering generally.
    I think however, that the teacher's union is not protecting the custodians and busdrivers at all and they are strategizing on how to pare their own losses.
    I think that the teachers will not be willing to eat up the 5 million or so costs that need to be cut, and in the end, better the other guy than themselves.

  2. I have worked in many schools (in three states over 15 years) and in my experience, privatization of custodial services usually meant that the buildings simply were not cleaned. I also feel it is an unnecessary security and safety risk.

    The custodial staff is a vital part of the school community and I hope other choices can be made.

    I am very cranky that the millage did not pass. It would have alleviated some of the cuts. I would have happily paid a bit more tax for the greater good.

    Thanks for posting about this. Bus drivers and custodians work hard; the least we can do is show them we value their contributions in children's lives.

  3. I have toured many districts being cleaned by unionized custodial staffs and I can tell you that the vast majority of the buildings look terrible and school bargaining units should be ashamed. Not only are they usually getting very generous pay packages, but they usually get full medical benefits and a crazy amount of payed days off per year (and you can bet they take every one of them too). These are stereotypical union situations where members spend too much time and energy abusing the system instead of doing a honest days work for an honest days pay. The days of unionized custodial staff members making $40,000, $50,000 or even $60,000 per year plus dozens of paid days off and free, full medical benefits need to be over. What would you have the district do? Their core competency is educating kids and that's what they should focus on. Not driving kids around, feeding them or cleaning their classrooms. I think most community members would be shocked to learn how much the custodial staffs get paid, how much paid time off they get, the extent of their medical benefits, and the abuse of the system. Don't demonize School Board Members for making solid, logical decisions when it comes to district finances. It's about time!

  4. Anon--I don't find that kind of vague characterization helpful. In my experience, the custodial work in the Ann Arbor public schools has been pretty good. So the question is not, "in general" is unionized work good or bad, but how is it in our community?
    And I don't demonize school board members for looking at ways to cut around district finances, but the results are equivocal as to whether privatizing saves money in the long run and b) I believe there are better ways.
    Note also, in the Lincoln school district, they are currently telling the union, "We would prefer to stick with you. Can you match these other groups?" That, at least, is being above board.