School district officials ought to look hard for ways to stretch public dollars. Yet they used to be afraid to contract out support services — and with good reason. Sending out a request for proposals was often met with protests by the district’s own employees. But things have changed in recent decades, as the Mackinac Center’s privatization survey has documented.
In 2001, contracting out was a controversial practice, but we knew then that some districts did it. So we did a survey to find out just how much contracting was taking place. We found that 31 percent of districts contracted out food, custodial or transportation services. Our 2003 survey found that most contracting out was for food services. Only 6.6 percent of districts contracted out for custodial services, and 3.9 percent contracted out for transportation.
Our latest survey found that 70.1 percent of districts contract out for at least one of these services, up slightly from 69.7 percent in 2015. And the practice is no longer concentrated in food services. Custodial work is the most frequently contracted out service, with over half the districts using a private vendor.
Districts that contract out tend to be satisfied with their service providers. We found a satisfaction rate of 89.3 percent. Districts that did not report being satisfied were often uncertain because they had a new vendor.
The high level of satisfaction is not uncommon. As one district official bluntly responded, “We’ve had them for many years, so if we’re unhappy with them, we just yell at them.”
This is the 14th year we’ve performed this survey. During that time, we’ve seen contracting out go from a controversial practice to a common one.