Rare Privatization Triple Examined, Avoided with Union Concessions

MUSKEGON — The Reeths-Puffer school district in Muskegon had been giving serious consideration to outsourcing all three of its major non-instructional school services: busing (see story directly below), food and custodial service. The changes were intended to help balance the district’s 2007 fiscal year budget.

In April, the district’s board of education voted unanimously to privatize its custodial services. According to television station WZZM, nearly 500 people attended the board meeting, many in opposition to the change. As the meeting concluded, many in the audience chanted, "shame on you" to board members. For their safety, board members were escorted from the school auditorium by police officers.

The Reeths-Puffer school board efforts have been an ongoing story in West Michigan.

On Feb. 14, The Muskegon Chronicle reported that Superintendent Steve Cousins confirmed that all three services were potential candidates for privatization. The hope was that savings from competitive contracting could help the district reduce an $830,000 deficit. The district currently employs 92 bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria staff.

In a March 15 letter from the Reeths-Puffer Board of Education to the local community, the board detailed tough fiscal problems facing the district and stated that it was considering outsourcing custodial and transportation services to save money. The letter also contained a table of financial data showing the current hourly rate in salary and benefits for district custodians ($31.52); what the union wanted ($31.83); the board’s offer ($26.77); and what the district would pay if the work were contracted out ($16.42). The letter said that outsourcing was a viable option to save money and avoid program cuts.

The privatization debate has not been without rancor, some of which appeared to be highly organized. One unique perspective that arose during the debate was that immigrants who were unfamiliar with the English language would be hired as replacement bus drivers.

The March 21 edition of The Muskegon Chronicle reported that the March board meeting featured one parent who said, "We all know what happens when you outsource. It will be hard for me to communicate with my daughter’s bus driver if they speak a different language."

These exact sentiments were repeated and amplified by state Rep. Doug Bennett who represents the area. The story, explained in detail by the Michigan Education Digest, is worth retelling here:

Several hundred people protested before the meeting, and a uniformed police officer was needed, The [Muskegon] Chronicle reported. Michigan Education Association President Iris Salters attended the rally and told the protestors to "hang tough," according to The Chronicle. Also at the rally, state Rep. Doug Bennett, D-Muskegon, said school districts in West Michigan would get rid of "everyone you trust," and give the jobs to "illegal immigrants," by privatizing custodians and bus drivers, The Chronicle reported.

Bennett was heard to tell Kathie Oakes of the teachers union, "We all know what’s going to happen – they are going to hire illegal immigrants to fill the jobs," according to The Chronicle. The newspaper said Bennett attempted to clarify his remarks when he realized a Chronicle reporter was standing next to Oakes.

The Chronicle said Bennett explained himself by saying Holland, home of Enviro-Clean, also is home to many illegal immigrants. The Chronicle also reported that Bennett repeated his remarks to the entire crowd a few minutes later and was met with a "somewhat muted response."

Reeths-Puffer and several other Muskegon County schools still are considering a move to privatize bus drivers as a way to save more money, The Chronicle reported.

"Very few districts in the state have private contractors working in all three of the major non-instructional service areas," said Michael LaFaive, senior editor of Michigan Privatization Report. LaFaive is the co-author of a 2005 survey which found that only two of Michigan’s school districts contract for busing, cafeteria and custodial services at the same time.

In June, the district reached a tentative agreement with the bargaining groups for its transportation, food and maintenance services. The proposed agreement included $144,000 in financial concessions.