Redford could keep teachers

Private group guarantees $350,000 savings for district to save jobs

The Redford Union School District has yet to accept an offer from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based research and educational institute, to help obtain the money needed to retain eight public school teachers who have been reassigned due to budget cuts. Earlier this year, the budget cuts prompted parents to raise money through bake sales, magic shows, and other means to keep children with their teachers.

In a Feb. 2 letter to then-Superintendent Thomas Gay, Mackinac Center Senior Vice President Joseph Overton stated that the district could save well over $350,000 by outsourcing non-instructional services such as transportation, cafeteria, and janitorial services to private firms. If an outsourcing plan failed to yield the needed savings while maintaining or improving current service quality, the center would pay Redford Schools the difference up to $350,000.

"We sometimes lose sight of the simple fact that children are the focus of our school system, and that teachers are the ones who work hard each day to make a difference in their lives," Overton wrote. "If we have to choose between overly expensive support services and teachers, we say protect the teachers."

According to the Mackinac Center, Michigan ranks last in the nation in terms of limiting public education overhead. Only 46 percent of Michigan public education employees are teachers. Other states place as much as 63 percent of their public education employees in the classroom.

Under the proposal, the Mackinac Center would work with the district—free of charge—to evaluate the current costs of non-instructional services, draft requests for proposals (RFPs) from private vendors, ensure an open and competitive bidding process, and evaluate bids. The district would be required to accept bids from reputable firms that met the specifications of the RFP and resulted in cost savings. If a $350,000 savings was not realized, the Mackinac Center would pay the difference up to the entire $350,000 required to restore the teachers' positions or otherwise lower the student-to-teacher ratio.

"Increasingly, the challenge in public education is not the overall amount we are spending, but how it is being spent," said Overton. "With parents sacrificing to raise additional money for the district, the least we can do is assure that current school resources are being spent wisely."

As of late April, the district was still considering the proposal. "Unfortunately, Redford has not accepted our offer yet," Overton said. "The primary opponents of outsourcing non-instructional services are the school employee labor unions—and Redford is a stronghold for the Michigan Education Association. The irony is that the union—which purports to represent the best interests of teachers—is more than likely preventing us from saving teachers' jobs."

Overton cited the union's recently published 2001-2002 "Quality Education Agenda" that opposes the privatization of transportation, cafeteria, and janitorial services, even when outsourcing improves quality and provides more money for teachers. Currently, Redford does not contract out for any of these services.

Other districts, however, do. One example is the Mt. Pleasant School District, which was losing $200,000 every year by providing its own school lunch service. After contracting with a private lunch provider, the district saved $113,000 in the first year—and the company retained all but one of the school employees.

Opponents of privatization worry that outsourcing efforts will threaten school employees' jobs or reduce the quality of services. Yet, privatization contracts are often written in such a way to mandate the hiring of current employees by the outside company. The downside of this technique is that it can limit the amount of savings derived from outsourcing.

In an April 1 editorial, The Detroit News called on Redford Union to accept the Mackinac Center's offer, saying, "If a better education can be provided by competitively bidding some non-classroom jobs, then that's a route the district owes its parents and students to explore."