A recent survey of Pennsylvania’s conventional public school districts by a Michigan-based research institute indicates that 75.2 percent of those districts contract out with private vendors for at least one of the three major noninstructional services.
This makes the state a leader among five surveyed this year by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The reason for the Keystone State’s high overall contracting rate is its frequent use of private school bus transportation providers. While it is a leader among other states surveyed, many Pennsylvania school districts can and need to do more.
Of Pennsylvania’s 500 districts, officials from 499 of them were successfully interviewed by researchers at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which also surveyed four other states throughout the summer. The other states: Michigan, Georgia, Texas and Ohio have overall contracting rates of 70.8 percent, 38.3 percent, 22.8 percent and 16.6 percent, respectively. The laggard here — our neighbor, Ohio — may be a national champion in college football, but it falls short in K-12 competitive contracting.
Private transportation providers can be found in 66.3 percent of Pennsylvania districts, far more than second place Michigan, which has otherwise made dramatic contracting gains. High contracting rates for bus services are not uncommon for eastern states but they are rare nationally. Of Georgia’s 180 districts, only three (1.7 percent) contract out for bus services. In Allegheny County, we have surveyed all 43 of the 43 districts. Of those surveyed, 67.4 percent report contracting out for transportation services.
It is worth mentioning that the Mount Carmel school district is the only district in the entire state that has failed to respond to the Mackinac Center survey, and has thus far ignored an official Right-to-Know request. The Mackinac Center intends to pursue the information to which it is legally entitled.
Eastern states’ comfort with competitive contracting may simply be a function of history. In several states, districts that began providing transportation services did so privately and never looked back. As far back as 1840, schools in Massachusetts hired farmers under contract to transport children to school. Not only does Pennsylvania have many districts that contract for these services, they do so with multiple vendors. The Tuscarora school district alone has 17 bus contractors with whom it works. There are others with a high number of contractors as well.
Pennsylvania also has the highest rate for contracting out food service of any state in this year’s survey, at 44.5 percent. The next highest is again Michigan (42.8 percent) and the lowest is again Georgia (2.2 percent).
Pennsylvania custodial contracting rate is only 8.8 percent, which is especially low compared to Michigan’s 52.2 percent rate. Among the five states surveyed by the Mackinac Center this year Pennsylvania’s rate bests the Buckeyes (4.2 percent) only. Done correctly, competitive contracting of existing, in-house noninstructional functions such as transportation, food and janitorial services can save money and relieve management of some headaches. In Michigan — where the Mackinac Center has done school contracting surveys for more than 10 years — districts reported savings of $35 per pupil for contracting out food service and a savings of $191 per pupil for contracting custodial service.
Is there a school leader in the state that would turn down that kind of additional money if it had been offered by the state? Probably not. But the equivalent of that may be what is happening in districts that choose to keep such services in-house. There may be very legitimate cost and quality reasons for letting district employees provide the services, but until a district seeks out legitimate requests for proposals from private vendors, it is difficult to know.
Congratulations are in order for district officials across Pennsylvania. They are leaders in the use of this proven cost-containment technique. More needs to be done, however. Every dollar that is squandered on unnecessarily expensive support services is a dollar that can’t be driven back into the classroom.
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