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Keep it Local

PSRP Reporter
Summer 2014
Feature Story

Fighting privatization to preserve community connections.

When Jackie McColister cranks open the door to her bus, she knows the children who climb up those stairs. A bus driver for 13 years in Hillsborough County, Fla., “Miss Mac,” as she is known, notices who waits for the kindergartners at each bus stop, and she would never release any of them to a stranger. She recognizes the cliques and outcasts among the middle schoolers, and as a mother of five, she reaches out to her students as if they were her own.

Charles Johnson, a paraprofessional security adviser and mentor at North Dallas High School in Texas, has taken 38 homeless teens into his own home during his career. And at North Eugene High School in Oregon, head custodian June Blackwell cries every year at graduation because she’s helped raise “her” students since ninth grade. She gives them bus fare when they ask, scolds them when they forget their manners, and lends an ear when they need it. “I love my kids,” she says.

These personal connections are not uncommon: Our schools are built on the bus driver who distributes free books to her students, the secretary or cafeteria worker who gently disciplines a rowdy teen, and the teacher’s aide who becomes a confidant to a troubled student. They are just a few of the many reasons why privatizing school transportation, custodial services, food services and security is a bad idea. But there are plenty more.

False promises

School districts that try to outsource services often think they’ll save money by hiring an outside company. But studies like All Costs Considered, published by the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, show that costs often increase after outsourcing. And the price of privatizing reaches far beyond the pocketbook. Giving up control, sacrificing accountability and losing loyal workers is a higher cost than anyone should have to pay, especially public school students.

The truth is, private companies are, by definition, profit-driven, and they do not always put the interests of students or staff first.

Steve Wilson knows this firsthand. Now a member of the Oregon School Employees Association, he once worked for First Student, a private transportation company, driving a leaky bus that splashed water across the electric panel and onto his shoes—and that was usually “packed to the gills.” Talk about distracted driving.

When he left First Student for the Parkrose School District, the difference was “like night and day.” Now, his bus is never overcrowded, he knows his kids, and he works two blocks from his home. “We’re one little happy family,” he says. “On Friday, we’re going to have a potluck.”

It almost didn’t happen that way: Parkrose came close to privatizing its transportation services earlier this year. To prevent that from happening, OSEA members plastered yard signs and bumper stickers everywhere, picketed and protested, attended school board meetings, and provided these statistics from the Labor Education and Research Center:

Fact: Driver turnover is higher in districts that contract out, meaning less experience behind the wheel.

Fact: For every 25 jobs contracted out, communities lose $165,000 in wages to local employees, $18,000 in state income tax revenue and $233,000 in local spending.

Privatization: A costly mistake

A recent report from In the Public Interest, Out of Control: The Coast-to-Coast Failures of Outsourcing Public Services to For-Profit Corporations, tells more of the story. “Outsourcing means taxpayers have very little say over how tax dollars are spent and no say on actions taken by private companies that control our public services,” the report says. With no requirement to share information, private companies “perform public functions behind a veil of secrecy.”

Such lack of accountability can be expensive. In 2010, food service provider Sodexo was accused of buying in bulk and pocketing the resulting savings that should have gone to New York school districts and the State University of New York. In Washington, D.C., Chartwells food service was contracted for 50 million meals for $42 million but delivered only 35 million meals for $49 million—less food for more money. And in Missouri, where private bus companies can perform their own vehicle inspections, an investigation has been launched into one company that discouraged managers from reporting safety issues like broken horns, radios and doors.

If private companies are able to reduce costs, those savings typically come at the expense of workers. In one case reported to a researcher from Rutgers University, food service workers in New Jersey were offered jobs with the private company that took over at their schools, but at $4-$6 an hour less than their former pay rates.

At Southwestern Illinois College, before the book store was outsourced, the store kept textbook costs low by buying books back at the end of the semester and offering used books at lower prices. But after the first year of privatization, textbook costs rose significantly, and despite promises to retain all employees, within eight months everyone had been let go. “Suddenly, they would come up with discipline issues, and the next thing you knew, [staff] had been fired,” says Marcia Campbell, a member of the Southwestern Illinois Federation of Teachers and the PSRP program and policy council, and a former bookkeeper at the store. “With no union to advocate for them, the employees moved on to whatever jobs they could find in the area.”

An ounce of prevention

The idea of privatization is so troubling that some locals are being proactive to prevent it.

When GCA Services Group, a private custodial company, began courting one Texas school board, Shelley Potter, the president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, sent a letter to the board members. “The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel does not support privatization of district services,” she wrote. “Our employees are invested in our district and our community. Many of our support personnel are parents or grandparents (or aunts/uncles, etc.) of our students. They have pride in the work they do because they know it impacts our students.”

The alliance knew the stakes: In 2011, dozens of San Antonio custodians lost their jobs to an outsourcing campaign. Because the custodial staff was smaller, food service workers were forced to take on more cleaning duties, despite not being trained, leading to numerous injuries. The union tallied the disadvantages and won back the custodial positions.

This time, the union’s strong relationship with the school board put it ahead of the curve. Just weeks after Potter’s letter, the board passed a resolution against privatizing in general.

Similarly, the school board in Hillsborough County is considering a study on outsourcing transportation, but bus drivers like Jackie McColister are ready to fight. Iran Alicea, president of the Hillsborough School Employees Federation, says privatization would be “devastating.”

“I don’t think there would be that level of community and accountability [with privatization],” says McColister, an HSEF member. “All of us drive for different reasons, but the bottom line is most of us don’t do it for the money.”

Fighting back

In addition to attending board meetings and rallies, locals are meeting the threat of privatization in other ways. Some write privatization restrictions into their contracts, banning it or limiting it to certain services or time periods. Others work with local representatives to legislate limitations on privatization.

Partnerships with organizations like In the Public Interest strengthen the message against outsourcing as well. If you are facing a threat from privatization, contact AFT staff member Allie Lupico at alupico@aft.org or 202-879-4582 to formulate a plan to keep it local.

—VIRGINIA MYERS