However talented a superintendent or business officer may be, few individuals have the time or skills to single-handedly shepherd a major privatization program, including post-contract monitoring, to a successful completion. While each district’s situation is unique, at least three key people — in addition to the school board — should be involved in controversial privatization efforts.
The first person is the superintendent. Even if he or she does not play a role in investigating privatization, reviewing RFPs or selecting a vendor, the superintendent must be kept apprised of the process at every step. The public will look to the superintendent as the first and final arbiter of the decision to privatize, even though the decision is actually the board’s prerogative.[lx] This is why the superintendent often makes the ideal point person for privatization. As the top district official, he or she is usually held responsible for well-managed schools.
The second person is the business officer or equivalent, if the district has one. A good business officer is typically a trained accountant. He or she will bring to the table analytical and financial planning skills that are vital to a successful contracting effort, including the ability to understand and even perform a “full-” or “total-cost accounting analysis” that allows district officials to better gauge how much providing a particular service with the district’s own resources actually costs. For instance, the district may pay just one utility bill every month, but a good business officer can often estimate accurately what proportion of the total energy use is due to cafeteria operations. Such estimates allow the district to determine the full cost of providing food services in-house, as opposed to contracting the service with a food service management company.
Such estimates and financial expertise can be critical to a contracting process. Indeed, a school board should consider making a school business officer the project manager and even point person for the district’s privatization efforts. At the very least, superintendents who have business officers should work closely with them. When a privatization debate is raging, it is often business officers who can marshal a telling fact quickly, because they’re routinely elbow-deep in the finances as a part of their job.
The third person to involve in any privatization process is the district’s attorney (or attorneys). True, contracting for services is becoming commonplace, and districts can and do adapt other districts’ contracts to their own needs. But one can’t assume that what has worked in one district with one vendor will spell success in another. A well-written contract that anticipates a district’s specific needs can protect against unexpected charges from a vendor or complaints of unfair labor practices from a union. Lawyers cannot anticipate every problem, but they can minimize contracting pitfalls.
Inevitably, a district’s board is collectively the most important part of the district’s privatization team. If the majority have no desire to pursue privatization, then a fine point person, business officer and superintendent will be for naught. Once a decision has been made to explore privatization initiatives, it is imperative for key project personnel to keep the board informed and solicit feedback either through formal meetings or on an individual basis.
Of course, privatization team members and board members should confer within the bounds of the law. Violating the state’s Open Meetings Act, which mandates that certain meetings be to open to the public, is illegal and a sure-fire way to cause a self-inflicted wound. That said, superintendents are not prohibited from speaking to board members individually.
One assistant superintendent I recently interviewed said that he will speak to board members individually to solicit any questions or concerns they might have before the board actually meets. He recommends other superintendents do the same when contracting. By discovering in advance what questions board members want to ask at official meetings, a superintendent can be prepared to provide answers. This official says he has also privately helped prepare individual board members for potentially rancorous public reactions to privatization proposals at official meetings.
One last note: One district official who has been part of a contracting team recommends that the school’s Freedom of Information Act officer be alerted and kept on hand when the privatization process begins. A series of FOIA inquiries from opponents of privatization is likely to follow.
[lx] Indeed, school boards may direct a superintendent to pursue a competitive contracting arrangement even if the superintendent does not prefer to privatize. This situation is not ideal, but it is not necessarily fatal, either.