Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011 | 12:20 a.m.
The Clark County School Board is considering hiring some outside custodians and bus drivers as a way to cut costs — a move that is raising the ire of some of the district's support staff.
School Board members said Monday night they plan to study and develop a policy on how the district might privatize certain operations as a cost-cutting measure of “last resort.”
This decision comes about a month after the School District released an efficiency study that found $162 million in potential cost-savings to the district over five years.
Gibson Consulting Group, which is based out of Austin, Texas, returned to Clark County on Monday to answer school board members’ questions about its study, which in part looked at ways the nation’s fifth-largest school district could streamline its operations.
The Gibson consultants have not recommended outsourcing to many of its clients, because there were other ways they could recommend becoming more efficient, President Greg Gibson said.
“A lot of the operations we saw out (in Clark County) are already very efficient, but they were still high cost,” Gibson said. “That naturally led us to the recommendation that at least you need to consider outsourcing to see if lower rates can be achieved.”
One of Gibson’s recommendations in the 272-page study was to outsource certain custodial and transportation positions, which could save an estimated $21.4 million a year. This particular advice has "petrified" the district’s support staff union, whose members have voiced concerns at subsequent school board meetings.
John Carr, president of the Education Support Employees Association, said he is concerned about how accountable outside contractors would be to the school district, whether their quality would match up to in-house employees and if they will undergo the same background checks that all district employees undergo to ensure the safety of students.
School board members echoed the same concerns at Monday’s meeting as they briefly deliberated penning a policy on privatization. Currently, there is no policy regarding outsourcing district positions, although the School District has outsourced positions in the past. (For example, nine painter positions were outsourced to Manpower, a local staffing agency, last summer, drawing complaints from ESEA.)
On Monday, school board members each voiced their opinions about outsourcing using carefully minced words.
If the district were to privatize some operations, the wording of the contract would be key, board member Erin Cranor said. The education grant writer has seen school districts in other states “held hostage by a contract that favors the private company,” she said.”
“We’re a long way from engaging in (privatization),” Cranor said. “(We should) say how would we do it better than other states if we were to do this kind of thing, and how would we avoid the mistakes in other states.”
School board member Linda Young said she was worried about the economic impact of privatization on the community and the school district in the future. If the district were to outsource custodians and bus drivers, those district employees would be out of work, she said.
“That has a direct impact on funding down the line: home ownership, taxes and so forth,” Young said. “I want us to be careful and look at the whole thing… schools, community and morale.”
School board member Deanna Wright also cautioned about privatization, advocating more research into other school districts that have pursued outsourcing.
The Clark County School District is one of Nevada’s largest employers, with more than 37,000 employees — about a third of them support staff employees. Wright is worried about all the students whose parents work for the School District.
Wright is also nervous about employee screenings.
Currently, the school district conducts background checks on all of its employees. If the district were to outsource positions to an outside company, the School District would maintain “the same high security check standards we now have for district employees,” according to district spokesman Amanda Fulkerson.
Still, the issue of privatization “greatly concerns me,” Wright said. “I just think we need to be so careful about going to outsourcing.”
School board member Chris Garvey was adamant the board determines the policy surrounding privatization. There is an ongoing debate about the role that the School Board — comprised of seven elected members — has in employee matters. Those matters have historically been under the purview of the superintendent, who is chosen by the board.
“We as a community need to decide what (privatization might) look like,” Garvey said. “Saving money is sometimes a good thing, and sometimes it’s not the best thing.”
School board member John Cole disagreed. He sees Superintendent Dwight Jones driving the policy on privatization. The School Board should allow Jones the latitude to make his own employee decisions as the “CEO” of the school district, Cole said.
Further, Cole sees privatization of services as a “growing issue” for school districts across the nation as funding for education dwindles amid the worst recession in 70 years. Secondary to students, but also important is the “competitiveness of what we’re paying for the services we’re getting,” Cole said.
“We want our employees to do well, but we have to understand that whatever dollars we save in this district are primarily going to go toward … more teachers in the classroom,” Cole said.
The decision to privatize may hinge on whether the School District can receive $56 million in concessions from its teachers and support staff unions. School District negotiations are still underway with the support staff union, although talks have broken down with the teachers union.
School Board member Lorraine Alderman stressed the Gibson report is a “road map” on how the district might handle privatization; however, it’s not the direction she wants for the district.
“Outsourcing should be perceived as a last resort,” she said. “I don’t think (the Gibson report’s) sole existence is to lead us down the road to outsourcing. I personally don’t think that’s the way we should go.”