Michigan school districts say they are saving money through
private contracting and using the money to mitigate the damage of higher costs
for health insurance, retirement and utilities. In interviews with Michigan
Education Report, representatives in school districts that have contracted with
private companies in the past year for janitorial, transportation or food
services said their budget outlook still is not good, but that it would have
been worse without outsourcing.
About a third of all Michigan school districts hire private firms through competitive contracting for janitorial, transportation or food services.
Garden City Public Schools estimated it would save $260,000 to
$500,000, or up to $100 per student, on custodial costs in the first year of its contract with Grand Rapids Building Services, but most of those savings were eaten up by unemployment obligations to former employees and by a legal
settlement between the school district and the Michigan Education Association, a school employees union that had filed an injunction to stop the move.
"Beginning in the second year, we will be saving $950,000 to $1
million," said Sheryl Quinn, executive director of business services. With
enrollment at 4,976 in the fall of 2005, that savings would equal up to $200 per
student. Even so, the district anticipates a $3.3 million deficit at the end of
this year, up from $1.3 million as of June 2006. "Had we still had those
(janitorial) costs, you can see what would have happened," Quinn said. Increased
utility costs were a major problem last year, as was a 15 percent increase in
health care expenses.
However, Quinn said, the district purchased new math textbooks
this year and plans to buy social studies books next year. In predicting future
costs, it helps that the district has a three-year contract with GRBS and a set
price for each year, she said.
Similarly, Hartland Consolidated Schools has a five-year
guaranteed price from GRBS for custodial service and is on track to save the
amount it estimated, which is $5 million over five years.
"A year ago at this time we were looking at cutting $1.5 million
from our general fund budget," said Scott Bacon, assistant superintendent for
business and operations. "If we hadn’t done this it would have been another 10
teachers. … We’ve already reduced the easy things."
Schools within the Kent Intermediate School District are saving
money by contracting with Dean Transportation to provide bus service for special
education students, according to James McLean, assistant superintendent for
finance. The KISD handles special education busing for a number of districts in
Kent County under three separate contracts. The savings do not go to the ISD,
but to the member districts, McLean said. "The money is going back into the
basic programs. ... All of the schools in our area have gone through substantial
cost reductions. Any cash they can put back in is a blessing for them."
"The real nut of all this is that you’re not paying that 17
percent retirement," he said, a reference to the Michigan Public School Employee
Retirement System. School districts must contribute an amount equal to about 17
percent of their payroll to the system each year to cover required benefits for
retired school employees. Private companies with private employees avoid that
expense, though they may offer their own retirement plans.
The KISD also is using a private firm for substitute teacher
services, and is talking with six other intermediate districts about
implementing a central accounting system, McLean said. "In just our city we
duplicate payroll in 21 locations," he said.
In Kalkaska, the school district is on track to save about
$324,000 — equal to about $182 per student — through its private custodial
contract, but that has been offset by increased costs for utilities, fuel,
health insurance and retirement, district officials said. The district already
reduced its teaching staff by 17 this year, said Lee Sandy, interim
"When you first outsource, it’s definitely a learning curve,"
said Romanier Polley, director of business services for the Avondale School
District. "We definitely realized savings … at least $250,000." Avondale’s
student count in the fall of 2005 was 3,819, making the savings equal to about
$65 per student.
That’s less than the $450,000 the district had projected because
the contract didn’t specify all the work that needed to be done, she said. The
contract included janitorial work but not maintenance for things like the
heating and ventilation systems, she explained. "We had [maintenance] things
that needed to happen immediately," she said, so the district ended up hiring
Next year "I think it will be a better year. This was a learning
year," she said. The money that was saved this year "is going toward other
operating costs," but not a specific item, she said. Avondale is running at a
deficit and has filed a deficit-reduction plan with the state.
Brandywine Community Schools also was able to reduce its deficit
with savings realized through a private custodial service, according to Sue
Furney, director of business and finance. The district signed a two-year
contract in January with D.M. Burr Facilities Management of Flint. It hired that
firm after ending a contract with Great Lakes Cleaning of St. Joseph. Furney
said in a report in the Niles Daily Star that Great Lakes and the district
mutually agreed that their agreement "was not a good fit." The new plan is
expected to save Brandywine about $170,000, or $118 per student.