In early February the Mackinac Center for Public Policy guaranteed the Redford Union School District that the Center would obtain the $350,000 needed to retain eight public school teachers who have been reassigned due to budget cuts. By competitively bidding out support services such as busing and cafeteria, as well as other district duties that raise overhead costs, Redford Union could easily save the $350,000-perhaps more-it needs to keep teachers in the classroom.
The school district cuts have prompted parents to raise money through bake sales, magic shows, and other means to keep children with their teachers. In a 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 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 said. "If we have to choose between overly expensive support services on the one hand and teachers, on the other, we say protect the teachers." According to the Mackinac Center, Michigan ranks first in the nation in terms of public education overhead. Only 46 percent of Michigan public education employees are actually teachers.
Under the proposal, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy would work with the Redford district 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 $350,000 in savings were not realized, the Mackinac Center would pay the difference up to the entire $350,000 required to keep teachers in their current positions.
"Increasingly the challenge in public education is not the overall amount we are spending, but how it is being spent. 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," said Overton.
Overton noted that "in order to achieve its full potential, the Redford Union School District must be able to devote as much of its funding as possible to classroom instruction, i.e., teacher salaries and instructional materials."
Overton explained that the Mackinac Center is Michigan's leading source of privatization information and can help the Redford Union district explore potential savings from outsourcing non-instructional services, as the Center has done with other districts in the past.
In other districts, the Center has helped identify unnecessary overhead costs that, once reduced, free up funding that can be used to hire more, or retain, classroom teachers.
Specifics from the Center's written offer to the Redford Union School District are highlighted below.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy will work with your staff, at no charge whatsoever, to evaluate the current costs of non-instructional services and other overhead items, to draft requests for proposals (RFPs) from private vendors to provide these services, to ensure an open and competitive bidding process, and to evaluate bids. The district will accept good faith bids from reputable firms that meet the specifications of the RFP and result in cost savings. The district will not be required to hire the low bidder, but rather the firm that we all agree will provide the best overall value to the district.
The school board and district staff must work together in good faith to facilitate a fair and effective bidding process, and provide Mackinac Center representatives with the necessary financial and operational information to conduct an effective outsourcing effort.
If the efforts of the Mackinac Center and the district fail to yield a savings of at least $350,000 in the first full fiscal year of private operations in the identified areas, while maintaining the same or better quality, the Mackinac Center will pay the district the difference between the savings and $350,000.
Today hundreds of Michigan schools have outsourced various non-instructional services and are reaping the benefits of cost savings. In 1994 the Michigan Legislature passed Public Act 112 to give school boards the ability to make unilateral decisions regarding the outsourcing of non-instructional services despite union objections. The purpose was to make it easier for school boards to allocate the greatest possible funding to classroom instruction for children.
In April of this year The Detroit News opined that Redford Union should entertain the Mackinac Center for Public Policy's offer because "cutting costs to save teaching jobs seems reason enough to set quibbles aside. Pursuing competitive bidding would be in the interest of balancing the budget and shoring up Redford union's reputation as a solid school district." Redford Union officials responded to the News by saying that the "Mackinac proposal had not been rejected outright. But it is on the back burner."
It should be placed on the front burner. After all, what does the district have to lose?
David Bardallis is editor of Michigan Privatization Report.