Privatized programs cut costs in public education

Schools scout for savings

This article originally appeared in the Detroit News on May 04, 2001 at

By Janet Naylor Vandenabeele and Craig Garrett / The Detroit News

PLYMOUTH -- Metro Detroit public schools are looking to the private sector in new ways to help save money, streamline operations and offer programs they otherwise might not.

In the latest twist, districts including Plymouth-Canton, Livonia, Farmington and Royal Oak are using an Ann Arbor company to provide French, Spanish, Arabic and other language enrichment classes to thousands of mostly preschool youngsters.

Berkley is starting a similar preschool program next fall.

Unlike elementary language classes in Bloomfield Hills or Warren, however, these classes are taught outside of the normal school day, are paid for by parents and don't always have state-certified teachers.

They're programs districts couldn't offer without private help, said Sue Dodd, Berkley director of community education and preschool programs.

She has hired Ann Arbor-based Language Adventure to teach Spanish to about 70 youngsters under age 5.

"It's easier for a company to hire one person to work 30 or 40 hours and get shifted to other districts than it is for me to find someone for two to three hours a week. It's much easier," she said.

It's not just foreign languages for tots, either: In Birmingham, high school students learn business and computer skills in a state-of-the-art corporate training facility run by the same company that serves them submarine sandwiches for lunch. Both make money -- and in the case of the training center, it's helping pay for the $3 million facility.

Private companies may not be new in school districts, but the language program represents the newest trend into the largely regulated world of teaching children.

Law made it easy

In other areas of running schools, using outside companies isn't uncommon. About 150 districts statewide, for example, have given over their cafeterias to private management -- including Lake Shore, Holly and Mt. Clemens.

The push toward outsourcing in public schools came after 1994, when the Michigan Legislature decided school support services did not have to be collectively bargained. That made it easier for districts to privatize, and harder for unions to oppose it.

Generally, outsourcing is done to save money or resources, such as with privately managed bus fleets or custodial staffs. It's remained a choice of administrators even through the economic boom of the late 1990s, noted Michael LaFaive of the Mackinac Center, a pro-privatization conservative think tank in Midland.

The center is conducting a survey this summer of Michigan school districts to determine the extent of school privatization, with results expected by August.

At the very least, privatization "has stayed even, even when the economy was booming. I've not seen a decline since the last recession," he said.

Pontiac schools has relied on a private company, First Student, to haul around 6,000 students since the district sold off its own bus fleet in 1993. That meant a savings of about $500,000 a year, said Kathy Powers, Pontiac's contract manager for First Student.

Birmingham saves at least $150,000 a year by letting Sodexho Marriott Services, the largest food and facility management company in North America, run its cafeterias. That's the amount the district was spending each year to cover cost overruns.

"We've done very well. We're improving sales every year," said David Andrejko, Sodexho Marriott's food service director in Birmingham. "We took it from a deficit to where it's no longer losing money."

But union officials keep a close eye when districts look for a private solution to a public challenges.

"The biggest question is, are they getting better results?" asked Margaret Trimer-Hartley, spokeswoman for the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest public school union. Some districts turn to privatization only to find "that maybe the grass isn't always greener."

Parents pick up bill

In the new programs, Language Adventure charges parents $185 for one student to get 20 to 25 weeks of a foreign language. That includes one hour per week of instruction and all materials needed give pupils a basic understanding of the language and culture.

Teresa Lowe of Canton, with two preschool kids, is happy for the extra opportunities. She said foreign language is "very important. Kids these days need all the help they can get."

In Berkley, the district is planning to pick up the costs of offering the program. Along with privately taught language programs offered before and after school, Plymouth-Canton schools since the mid 1980s have used Sodexho Marriott Services, to run its food service programs.

A Plymouth-Canton official estimated the district had saved tens of thousands of dollars using Marriott management.

Some say schools are going too far.

Chuck Portelli, the union representative for about 900 Plymouth-Canton teachers, said his district is being squeezed by budget constraints and can't help but look outside for some services, like foreign language and food, he said.

Portelli isn't yet concerned about privatization moving into the classrooms, but he doesn't like the trend.

"People end up losing their allegiances," he said. "And that's what keeps a school district together."

Union issues

While some districts hesitate to outsource for fear they'll anger union employees, companies like Sodexho Marriott Services get around that by offering their management expertise to oversee current cafeteria staffs. The districts pay for a food service manager trained by the company, rather than going out and finding one on their own.

Saving union jobs was "absolutely" a factor in Lake Shore's decision to contract out its cafeterias for two years. A new, healthier menu debuted this past fall.

"We did not want any of our employees to be displaced by this decision," said Grace Stafford, the district's former business director who's now in charge of personnel.

It's unclear if overall sales are up, but students are buying more whole meals, she said. The district eventually hopes the operation will be self-supporting or even turn a profit.

Early profits in privatization can be deceptive, though, said the MEA's Trimer-Hartley.

"That's always been our argument," she said. "Companies will low-ball to get the bid, and the next thing a district knows, costs are skyrocketing."

You can reach Janet Naylor Vandenabeele at (313) 222-2309 or