Reprinted with permission of the Herald Palladium in St. Joseph.

Over the past several years Michigan has undergone a significant economic downturn, and, as a result, funding for education has been slashed. Michigan schools have been left with the huge problem of continuing to provide quality educational programs and services to our students with fewer dollars. Proposal A (approved in 1994), which helped narrow the gap between wealthy and poor districts, took away school districts’ ability to raise taxes for operations.

The Berrien County Intermediate School District, in its role as a service agency, provides programs, services and funding to local school districts. These funds help local districts offset their costs for operating special education programs and for providing special services to their students. Thus, dollars saved by the BCISD result in increased funding, programs and services for local district operations.

With local district options for raising new money through taxes limited, discussions have turned toward reducing expenses. In 1994, PA 112 was amended; allowing schools to privatize non-instructional services without going through the collective bargaining process. In fact, the amendments went beyond removing the necessity to negotiate on this issue and made it an illegal subject of bargaining. As a result, the past decade has seen many local and intermediate school districts outsource their food service, custodial, transportation and certain administrative services to reduce costs without directly impacting instructional programs to students.

The BCISD has privatized the food service program and the transportation system for students attending the Lighthouse Education Center (formerly North Lincoln School) for many years with great success. More recently the district also privatized some administrative and consulting services, resulting in more than $200,000 in savings this past year. Since the transportation system at the Blossomland Learning Center is a high-cost item, privatizing has been discussed for several years. In the fall of 2004, the BCISD met informally with various potential vendors to gather information about the services they might offer and the potential savings the district might realize.

In December 2004, requests for proposals (known as RFPs) were sent to possible transportation vendors. In March the district received firm bids from three private carriers. The most attractive (and lowest) bid was submitted by Laidlaw Education Services and, if implemented, would save the BCISD nearly $1 million for each year of the five-year proposal. Laidlaw is the largest private contractor of student transportation services in the country with more than 40,000 buses; the company also provides services to more than 1,000 school districts.

Given that school districts now have the right to privatize these services, the more difficult question becomes: "Is it the right thing to do?" Arriving at the best answer involves significant discussion, critical analysis of bids (focusing on safety and quality issues) and a detailed check of references including on-site visitations.

The safe and efficient transportation of our students is, and always will be, the most important consideration. This holds true both for regular students and for students with special needs. Jeopardizing their safety and quality of care would not be an option, regardless of the amount of dollars saved. Currently, many Michigan districts, ISDs and local districts outsource all or a significant portion of their transportation services. Nationally, more than 40 percent of student transportation is provided by private carriers. While it is easy to become caught up in discussing whether the private contractor or the public employee would provide more safety and quality, the fact is there is no evidence to support that either one meets a higher standard of quality, care or safety than the other.

While this decision is about students and cost savings, the BCISD remains sensitive to the anxiety this causes for our transportation staff. These employees have performed admirably over the years and are sensitive to the needs of the students. The district has required that any successful bidder provide the first opportunity for employment to our current staff. Although the benefits would be reduced if employed by a private contractor, hourly compensation would be commensurate with their current wages.

The mission of the Berrien County Intermediate School District is "to provide programs and services to our constituent school districts which enhance learning opportunities for all students." If the BCISD can provide private transportation services to our students while meeting the same or higher standard of quality and safety, and realize a significant cost savings that would provide enhanced educational opportunities to the students in our local districts, it would be fiscally irresponsible to do otherwise.

Jeff Siegel is superintendent of the Berrien County Intermediate School District.