Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Election information

Don't forget to vote "YES" on May 8.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Do private employees in public schools provide the same quality of service as public employees in public schools? No

Michigan Education Report
Spring 2007

Schools that spend less usually get less
By Mr. Charles Bullard

School boards don’t typically decide to hire outside companies to do work historically performed by their own employees in order to boost quality.

Or to find more loyal workers.

Or to help students.

They do it because they’ve bought into the scam that they might spend less for the same (or better) services. But, this isn’t an article about money.

It’s an article about service. And, when you spend less, you usually get less.

You get less service. Or poorer quality. Or fewer "intangibles" – like loyalty and pride in one’s work, that, while difficult to measure, are still important.

Like most teachers, I’ve devoted my career to helping students. I believe that every decision in education should answer the simple question: Will this help students?

Outsourcing the work of dedicated public school employees — custodians, bus drivers, teachers, food service workers, and other important people who work together to educate students — doesn’t help children. In fact, it can negatively impact students.

In Holland, where I work, the school board decided to outsource, or privatize, the jobs of people who cleaned and took care of our facilities and the people who operated our printing services.

Things haven’t been better — or even the same — since.

It’s safe to say that many people, including some school board members, don’t understand the roles that custodians play in educating our students. They do more than "just" clean classrooms and mop floors, to be sure.

Custodians strive to provide a safe, clean and healthy environment for children to learn. Without such an environment, students and teachers can be sidetracked from their work by anything from needing to empty a trash can to getting sick due to unsanitary conditions.

Since our school custodians were fired, teachers have noticed many problems, including some that have gone unaddressed for long periods.

Teachers don’t know from day to day or week to week who the custodian assigned to their building will be. Therefore, we can’t rely on touching base with the building custodian on various day-to-day issues that arise in our schools. To the detriment of students and staff, the private company hired to handle custodial needs schedules different employees to different buildings, according to their wishes and employee availability. When the custodians were employed by the district, they were assigned to a specific building and other staff (and students and parents, too) knew who the custodian was for that job site.

Holland teachers now have to type up formal requests for any and all custodial needs, a burdensome task that takes time away from teacher planning and preparation. What’s more, many teachers opt to "just do it themselves" to ensure the work gets done instead of submitting a formal request and hoping the work will get done eventually.

Scheduling changes have hurt quality, too. Teachers report that student bathrooms often smell and are not cleaned from time to time, that classrooms aren’t thoroughly vacuumed regularly and that it can take weeks before desks or tables are moved for vacuuming.

Since each building doesn’t have a consistent custodian, employees of the district’s maintenance department are now called on to attend to mishaps.

Last year, a vomit mess in one of our elementary buildings was left in a hallway for more than two days because maintenance staff members weren’t able to free themselves from jobs elsewhere. The spot was simply sprinkled with absorbing pellets and covered with a chair so people would walk around it and not through it until it was cleaned up.

Another problem is noticeable at the high school, where mold in one classroom is visible across several ceiling tiles. The mold has been reported during each of the past two years, yet the odor and discoloration remain.

These are just a few examples of how outsourcing the custodians’ jobs has negatively impacted quality.

In my school district, the jobs of people who print and copy materials for students were also outsourced. The district hired a major private company to do the work. Yet this company doesn’t have the same expertise as our in-house employees. Outside companies hold no loyalty to individual school districts; they are for-profit companies that need to sell more copies to make a profit.

About a year after taking over the copying work in my school district, staff completed a survey of the company’s performance; it included questions about professionalism, responsiveness and overall satisfaction. The survey revealed high levels of dissatisfaction. Nearly half rated their overall satisfaction "below average" or "poor." They also said their orders weren’t produced as requested or when requested.

At a time when more is expected of our students and our schools, we shouldn’t accept less from the people and companies with whom we do business.

In the debate over outsourcing the work of local school employees, I hope that more school boards will consider the quality of work needed to ensure that students have a safe, clean environment that is conducive to learning.

Anything less is unacceptable.

Charles Bullard is a teacher and high school band director with Holland Public Schools.