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Letter: West Bloomfield School Board Rushing Decision

Gretchko Elementary School parent comments on privatization issue.

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

For more on the issue:

Kathleen Teets April 23, 2012 at 12:38 PM
This is infuriating! As a citizen & taxpayer in West Bloomfield, I feel I have the right then to fire the Board of Education and possibly rehire them at a much "discounted" rate. What about the people they hire who are not a current bus driver for the school district? Are they going to have a complete criminal background check? Or is the city going to make a deal with the new company like they did with the new garbage company who refused to allow background checks done? Or perhaps I should have the right to divert their job overseas to some individual who doesn't care less about our children let alone our country. What a bunch of complete idiots. Kathleen Teets
Timothy Rath (Editor) April 23, 2012 at 12:54 PM
Thanks for your comment. The district maintains that standards of background checks will remain. For more: http://patch.com/A-s5lh
Art April 23, 2012 at 01:00 PM
Mr.Edvardson: So what you are saying is that those drivers and custodial personnel reh-hired will suddenly lose their sense of obligation, loyalty and purpose towards the school and the children once they make less money and benefits. I certainly don't think so, your not giving them the personnal respect they deserve
Ola Edvardsson April 23, 2012 at 01:16 PM
Hi Art, No, that's of course not what I meant. I have the highest respect for the district's transportation and custodial staff. That's why I wrote this letter in support for their situation. All the best. -Ola
Julia April 23, 2012 at 01:33 PM
Art - What I think he's also implying is that when people have less benefits and pay, they are more likely to look elsewhere for jobs that pay better. It's human nature. Obligation, loyalty and purpose toward the school and the children will, in most cases, come second when one needs to think of the livelihood of one's family - especially when the school district did not display any obligation, loyalty, or purpose to them. When that happens, new hires will likely have less experience with driving buses than the current tenured employees - which increases safety risks.
Bruce Sucher April 23, 2012 at 01:45 PM
Well I see all the liberals are up in arms over privatization. This is a bunch of crap. If the company is checked out, criminal checks etc are done properly then there is nothing wrong with saving taxpayer money. All of those that are so "outraged" always want things but don't want to pay for them. I do not want to over pay for labor and maintenance costs if the replacement can do the job with all of the proper vetting of the company. I hope nobody is going to tell me how great public union employees are and how much their extra cost is worth it because it is not at all.
Lisa Betman April 23, 2012 at 02:18 PM
sadly this is what most districts are doing to save money. We are not trendsetting in this practice, just following the lead of other districts in an effort to save money. I am not in favor the practice, but I understand why they are doing it.
Julia April 23, 2012 at 02:23 PM
Mr. Sucher- This isn't a liberal/conservative issue. In fact, ordinarily I'm on the side of privatization. Did you know that a Pennsylvania school district that switched to the same private company WB is considering has ousted its superintendent over this issue? The reason being is that the $775K in annual savings that was promised actually turned out to cost the district an incremental $340K annually. Once the private company secures the contract by promising lower costs, they then have the district cornered and start raising fees. Here's the article that chronicles what happened in Pennsylvania: http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2011/08/bus_outsourcing_hiring_from_20.html The bottom line is ... why is the board rushing to make a hastened irreversible decision without looking at the holistic budget implications of other facilities issues currently under consideration? Ultimately we may still need to privatize, but the board should be looking at cost-cutting in relation to other decisions it may make on closing schools and admin buildings. Why the rush?
Louise Cantor April 23, 2012 at 03:31 PM
It's funny how conservatives can stand up for safeguarding taxpayer's money after they fail to lead responsibly and create a financial mess. The school board members do not get compensated for their work and it shows. The school community certainly got what it payed for; a boatload of excuses, bonuses to their buddies, open meeting act violation(s), lousy district image, no school building(s) closings, irresponsible contracts, over reliance on schools of choice and on and on. Nelson Hersh knew before he ran for re-election that the transportation workers would be outsourced. He convinced them that he is on their side and that the teachers were the real enemy so they helped him get re- elected. The board is now living the pain of reverse choice. The money that we just couldn't live without is the money that we will now have to live without. Choice is now has devastating financial consequences instead of being a positive financial plan for the forseeable future.
Emilie B. April 23, 2012 at 04:37 PM
Thank you for your well-written letter--I agree 100%. Not only does the decision feel rushed, I feel like we taxpayers have no say in the matter. Why not wait until the new superintendent is hired and the facilities and SOC matters are settled?
Alan Rosenberg April 23, 2012 at 07:09 PM
This comes down to shipping the jobs out of the hands (over time) of the people we have trusted for years and years to save money. I say, "Lets save elsewhere when it comes to "OUR KIDS". The cuts backs in the district and new hours of the schools have put enough burden on the parents. I say, "enough already". I would gladly vote to eliminate or reduce other programs within other parts of the school district over the transportation outsourcing for our children. This is not political, It is about our Children! NO Outsourcing in WEST BLOOMFIELD!!!
Amber Somerville April 23, 2012 at 08:52 PM
I think we need to take our frustrations and disagreement up the ladder to our state officials. From what i have read, it seems that our Governer has made it a best practice for schools to consider outsourcing its support staff. I believe the incentive consists of more money....
Kathy April 23, 2012 at 10:31 PM
I'm with Julia. I tend to be conservative but certainly not at the expense of our children's safety. Bruce, if you read the earlier article, : http://patch.com/A-s5lh , you will see that although the board says that the safety component will remain the same, they also say that they would give up the demand for fingerprinting and criminal background checks. Exactly how would that work?
Kathy April 23, 2012 at 10:38 PM
I would hope that MS. Ola Edvarsson would send her wonderfully written letter to all area newspapers and media outlets. I believe that the only way to slow this process down is to draw major attention to the foolishness of the timing and the haste and what's actually behind it--possibly trying to usurp the power of the upcoming new superintendent.
Amber Somerville April 23, 2012 at 11:31 PM
To the post about the district being willing to forgo background checks: I thought it was legally required for people in positions working with children to go through the checks? Even so, crimes against children happen from first-time offenders as well. With the rampant turnover that will no doubt occur (people being paid low wages and probably not even given full-time hours) the risk to our children increases dramatically - background check/fingerprinting, or not.
sherri james April 24, 2012 at 01:34 AM
On April 30th, at the next board meeting, the West Bloomfield School board will decide the fate of all of it's trusted custodians and bus drivers. I have always felt proud to work for West Bloomfield Schools. I felt they we're always rated near the top. They have many wonderful and devoted employees. The employees I work with and know have always been willing to take that extra step over and above their job description. Lets keep West Bloomfield Schools # 1 !!!!!! NO OUTSOURCING !!!!!
GBParent April 24, 2012 at 02:26 AM
Most public institutions do not show long term savings from privatization. If there was money to be made as profit, it would have been used as savings by the public institution. It is counterintuitive that privatization should be a money saver. What happens is exactly what this letter alludes to. There is short term savings for long term increase. If you look not at the bias of right vs left and only at EMPIRICAL data on privatization, you will see that it is on the whole a bad idea. It is not a liberal, conservative issue. It is an issue of what will produce which ACTUAL real world result.
GBParent April 24, 2012 at 02:29 AM
Absolutely! Districts all over the state are hurting due to massive budget cuts. We should be pursuing only the policies that put the best people possible in our children's lives. That is true from teachers to janitors to lunch staff. There are public works that are worth investing in and my children and yours are one such thing. The State is first to blame IMO.
GBParent April 24, 2012 at 02:32 AM
Do you think when they have a massive cut in pay and benefits that they WON'T have their motivation and spirit destroyed? Put yourself in those shoes. Use your imagination for a minute. How could giving them personal respect mean anything when your tangible expression of that respect (their pay) is gutted. That respect would be nothing but hollow, meaningless sentiment. Art, you may not have thought that statement all the way through...
GBParent April 24, 2012 at 02:36 AM
There is a REAL cost to privatization. Please read this and consider if this is the right path. http://www.inthepublicinterest.org/node/457
sherri james April 25, 2012 at 01:21 AM
The School Board WILL be voting to outsource 112 jobs on Monday, April 30th at 7 pm at WB High School. Please attend, and show your support. KEEP OUR SCHOOLS SAFE!!!!!
jane doe May 05, 2012 at 12:42 AM
terminated bus driver; we deeply appreciate all the support we have recieved from our district. it has been our saving grace, getting us through this very difficult week. as of today 5-4-2012 the contract has not been signed between durham and the district!!! the district wants to amend a few things in it. we no longer have faith in our administration, nor the school board. durham is supposed to come in next week, and we have been warned they will recruit, if we do not sign up for thier program we could be denied unemployment and health care. ( strong arming ) many of us are just a few years from retirement age, therefore, we need to be activly working in the public school system to continue our pensions. such life altering decisions should not have to be made in a week!! we are honored to serve our familys, and we continue to put smiles on our faces for our children that we love so dearly. we do not trust the saftey of our kids to strangers period! if you will notice.... we are driving with our strobe lights on, we feel this is our way to show our mourning. there may be a slight change of hope, call joann andrees, call the board office.... or sign petitions. we will be at work everyday until june 14th.... we will not let you down. no call ins... no strikes... no nonsence!!!! we are here for our kids until we are told to hang up our keys..... thank-you and god willing, we see you next year.
Ms. Dawn May 12, 2012 at 09:32 AM
West Bloomfield taxpayers should demand to see what exactly the savings are 3 years from now. I will guarantee it will NOT be what is claimed now. Durham is a business and they are out to make money. If the drivers made concessions to match Durham, why did this happen?? The Board was going to do this all along. Maybe those on the Board should have went out on a few bus routes to see what Drivers do on a daily basis. As for keeping the cuts away from the kids, that's bull! I drive a bus in a neighboring district. I know who is having a bad day, I know medical conditions, I know custody orders and who the child can go with and who they cannot go with, I put band aids on boo boo's, I'm the first district employee they see in the morning, and the last in the evening. I know how to deal with the kids who are autistic or have any other conditions. I care for my kids more than you know! Look up Durham and their safety records and employee behavior. To all the WB Drivers, my heart goes out to all of you.

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