Union files labor complaint

Holland says custodial privatization brings savings

Last October, the support staff union for the Holland Public Schools filed an unfair labor complaint against the Holland school district in an ongoing battle over privatization of school custodial services, according to The Holland Sentinel.

In the complaint, the Holland Educational Support Personnel Association made several allegations related to the district’s talks with the union prior to the school board’s recent decision to contract with a private firm for custodial services. "We charged them (the board) with refusal to bargain in good faith, and we claim that they took action to split our bargaining unit apart by telling members of the bargaining unit that this didn’t really affect them and they didn’t have to be concerned about it," Paul Kirschner, a Michigan Education Association representative, told The Sentinel.

Jim Sullivan, Holland’s assistant superintendent of finance and personnel, told The Sentinel that the district found "most of the accusations to be groundless or without merit." He also denied a union allegation that a food services employee was verbally reproached by a supervisor for making comments during a school board meeting that discussed privatization.

The district had proposed privatizing custodial work in the midst of a financial downturn.

Kirschner claimed that after the school board informed the support personnel staff of the board’s desire to privatize, Holland Educational Support Personnel Association was given only a week to change the board’s mind. The MEA was called in to assess what its regional representative deemed a "critical" situation.

Sullivan told The Holland Sentinel on Oct. 28 that he was not surprised at the steps the union had taken. "Their role is to protect their members," he said, "My role is to advocate for the school district."

Sullivan’s proposal to save as much as $700,000 for the school district had been widely and publicly criticized by HESPA as only a quick-fix solution. James Forster, the president of HESPA, said his union had been lobbying for the opportunity to make a counteroffer.

The school board said this opportunity was granted, but Forster told The Sentinel that the board had been unresponsive: "We have made some offers — little pieces of the pie but when you add them up you could get a full slice — but when we brought those up, they weren’t very receptive."

Concerns about the safety of contracting with a private firm have been raised by the union. Union fliers have warned that privatization carries uncertainties that could end up harming the school and its students in an attempt to reduce expenses. They question whether the district will have a firm knowledge of the personal history of the private personnel, especially regarding criminal activity.

In response, School Board President Bob Carlson has stated, "One of (the contractors) does even more for background checks than what we presently do with our people."

According to The Holland Sentinel, the district has lost 200 students per year for the past two years. A continuation of this trend would produce a $2.5 million deficit in the district by June 2006.

As of December, privatization of custodial services has been implemented, according to Carlson. The union has since withdrawn the unfair labor complaint as part of a settlement that was reached in order to finalize negotiations over teacher contracts. Carlson also said that although the exact cost reduction from privatization has not yet been calculated, the district has indeed realized the savings originally projected. The district has received many positive comments about the new services, and very few complaints.

Carlson told Michigan Education Report that the district will focus on assuring a quality educational program and improving existing programs to market themselves and increase enrollment. He also noted, "We will continue to look at ways to become more efficient in our operations as a way to decrease costs."

This story is an expanded version of an article from a November 2004 issue of Michigan Education Digest based on source stories from The Holland Sentinel.