Jul 28, 2014
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Letter: West Bloomfield School Board Rushing Decision

Gretchko Elementary School parent comments on privatization issue.

Letter: West Bloomfield School Board Rushing Decision

I don’t think most West Bloomfield parents are aware that when school starts in the fall, their children are likely be driven to school by a private company, possibly headquartered overseas.

The West Bloomfield school district is about to fire all transportation and custodial staff and outsource these services to two private companies. The reason? They want to save money. 

The private company will then hire back most of the drivers but pay them less and give them much less benefits. That is the entire issue in a nutshell.

It’s one of the most major decisions ever taken in the school district’s history.

And they are spending less than 60 days from start to finish in making this decision with very little input from the local community. This concerns me as a parent for multiple reasons.

1. Safety of our children

There are numerous news reports about quality issues with private school bus services. 

A common complaint is that private bus companies defer maintenance on the buses to keep maintenance costs to a minimum.

Another issue is staff turnover and morale. I have no doubt that short-term many of the district’s bus drivers will drive for the private contractor. 

But long-term you will see that it will be hard to retain staff given the low pay and meager benefits offered. This will mean that you will see bus drivers with less experience be in charge of the safety of your children.

Today, you know your bus driver and they know you. And most of the custodial staff at the schools is well known by students, parents and other staff. There will be a loss of community.

2.  It’s just not right to treat people this way.

There seems to be an on-going arrogance and dissonance in the way the school board and the administration deals with employee relations. And the hard working school bus drivers and the custodial staff deserve better treatment than this.  

I am sure the West Bloomfield school board or the school administration would not want to be treated this way themselves. Maybe we should take a look at outsourcing school administrators?  Administration costs are rising and maybe a private company could run the school district.

3. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

A study done in Pennsylvania by the Keystone Research Group shows that long-term, the cost savings are not as significant as one initially assumed. 

The reason is this: the private company can bid low to get the contract.  The school district fires all the drivers and sells its fleet of buses. There’s a short-term infusion of cash and the initial period shows immediate savings. 

But the leverage has now shifted from the district to the private contractor.

Why? The school district will not have the resources available to in-source and re-hire staff and buy new buses. The private contractor can now slowly add fees and charges and re-negotiate the contract to reflect a more true ongoing cost of operations. 

Sure, the school district can award the contract to another company when it is up for renewal, but in reality the district will have problems doing so. The tendency is to stick with the existing contractor and not start over again with new staff from an unknown vendor.

It’s going to be an uneven match where the negotiation skills of the large private transportation companies will outmatch the negotiation skills of the small local school district. 

4. What’s all the rush about? 

The district does not currently have a deficit. The administration would like to have a bigger cushion in place for the future. I respect that.

But 60 days with very little study to eliminate a whole transportation and custodial department? Many people take longer time to research and purchase a new car or TV than what the school board takes to rush through such an important decision.

What bothers me the most is that the school board is going to make a decision on this issue before it has studied all of the available alternatives.

There is currently a study going on in the district regarding which buildings the district needs in the future. None of the district’s school buildings are operating at 100 percent capacity.

One can only speculate at this point, but by reading between the lines from the focus group questions that have been asked at various meetings, it’s very likely that at least one school building will be closed and grade re-configurations will be implemented.

This wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad thing. We could have more schools with a K-2 and 3-5 age configuration, which might create a better school environment for our youngest children.

The building could be closed and the pre-school programs housed there could also be downsized and moved to the local schools.

Why wouldn’t the board wait with the bus decision until the study is completed regarding future school buildings so that they have a holistic view of their budget?

There will also be a new superintendent this fall. Why is the board rushing to make all of these decisions when there will be  new management in place just a couple of months from now?

It is very possible that the district in the end will be forced to privatize school transportation or custodial services to balance future budget deficits.

But it seems like it’s simply decided to go ahead and do it quickly before too many people notice what is going on and before fully exploring cost savings with existing staff.

There is no turning back after this decision has been made. 

The buses will be gone and the existing staff will be lost long-term to other districts or companies.

At the very least I urge the school board to defer this decision and await the full results of the current facilities project and work with the incoming new Superintendent on the best way to increase the fiscal soundness of the West Bloomfield Schools.

Ola Edvardsson

Orchard Lake

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