Public Involvement in the Privatization Process

There are two schools of thought on the degree to which a superintendent or individual board members should publicize an investigation into privatization. A given district’s approach will probably be a judgment call that rests largely on the particular character and circumstances of the community in which the privatization will take place.

In some districts, the investigation might occur best in a public setting, particularly if the move to competitively contract was initially proposed by community members. In Midland, for example, the school district solicited feedback from local citizens on how to improve its operations. Among the ideas recommended was support service privatization. When something like this happens, the discussion will likely become public regardless of the superintendent’s or board’s preferences.

In other districts, the key proponents of privatization may be district officials who work behind the scenes long before they announce their intentions to contract a particular service. The idea is to develop a clear picture of what privatization might accomplish before a grueling public battle begins. In the Berrien County Intermediate School District, one official quietly issued a formal RFP and received proposals from vendors before the union that represented the area’s school transportation employees knew the process had begun. The result was that the ISD board held only two meetings packed with angry employees, their families and friends, instead of nine or 10 meetings, as has been the case elsewhere.

There are advantages and drawbacks to both approaches. The first may allow valuable public debate that improves the privatization process, while the second may avoid riling district employees, their unions and the community over a privatization investigation that shows that the service should remain in-house after all.

Regardless of the approach a district chooses, its very earliest steps should probably be discreet. School district employees, like anyone else in such a situation, will be concerned about their job security and income, even if they are likely to be hired by the winning contractor. Alarming them when the privatization may not take place seems unnecessary.

That said, districts will find that attempts to contact vendors indirectly are self-defeating (and even potentially problematic, given district guidelines and state laws like the Open Meetings Act). District officials, for instance, may be tempted to ask third parties to investigate contracting on their behalf to minimize the possibility that their interest in privatization will be made public. Unfortunately, this approach will also mean that the district go-between will be unable to provide a vendor with specific details for fear of identifying the district. This prevents a vendor from contributing any estimates that might be useful. For instance, if a food-services vendor knows nothing more than that a district has 500 to 1,000 students, the vendor will find it extremely difficult to make a meaningful estimate of what the costs to the district would be if the vendor assumed control.