AAPS Issues RFPs for Privatization

More public input still sought

Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education meeting (Jan. 20, 2010): Wednesday’s meeting of the AAPS board of education was a study in contrasts.

Demonstrating against privitization

Outside the Jan. 20 school board meeting, one of four demonstrators against privatization of certain school services. (Photo by the writer.)

On one hand, it was an evening of accolades and celebrations.  The board heard recommendations to pay tribute to the work of two longtime AAPS staff members by naming facilities in their honor, community participation in budget planning was lauded, and the students from this year’s Hikone Exchange Program reported on their trip to Ann Arbor’s sister city of Hikone, Japan.

At the same time, concerns about possible privatization of custodial, maintenance, and transportation services dominated the meeting’s public commentary. And when the same presentation that was made to recent public budget forums was repeated for the board, looming school budget cuts again came to the fore. Requests for proposals (RFPs) for outsourcing that are a part of those cuts were also briefly discussed.

Possible Privatization: Custodial, Maintenance, Transportation Services

Among the possible cost-saving measures presented at the recent public budget forums are moves to privatize certain services: custodial, maintenance, and transportation.

Background on Privatization at AAPS

Privatization is not new to the AAPS. The district has outsourced some services completely: substitute teachers, food service, asbestos removal, concrete repair, roofing, and security. Many other services have been provided by blending AAPS employees with private contractors, such as custodial services (substitutes are privatized), electrical work, painting, and carpentry. Since Proposal A passed in 1994, effectively causing school districts across Michigan to operate under increasing financial pressure year after year, outsourcing within other units of AAPS has been increasingly considered.

Changes to custodial/maintenance and transportation contracts over the past few years have included limiting vacation scheduling, changing health insurance coverage, and reducing available sick leave. Union members who spoke at the Jan. 20 board meeting attributed these changes to the threat of outsourcing, which they said has caused their membership to approve a gradual weakening of their benefits and their pay. Many speakers during public commentary referred to concessions that have already been made over the years, with one asking “We’re the only group with a designated vacation, and a lifetime wage – isn’t that enough?”

Another fear reflected in the public commentary was that of retaining employment but losing pension benefits. It is not uncommon for privatized vendors to “re-hire” the same workers for the same jobs with less pay and fewer benefits.

For example, when Chartwells was hired to take over food service in the district, many local employees were hired. But because these workers are no longer in the state employee retirement system, it has led to complaints about their compensation – as one community member put it at a recent AAPS budget forum, tbey are paid “like McDonald’s workers.”

Public Commentary on Privatization

A few dozen members of the local custodial/maintenance and transportation unions were present and showed enthusiastic support for their six members who made statements during the public commentary section of the meeting. Some union members also picketed outside the meeting, carrying signs reading “More will be lost – not just the cost”; “Stop privatizing. It’s dangerous. Think of our kids”; “The Safety of our children comes first” and “Help AAPS staff keep our schools safe – stop privatization.”

The safety issue was echoed in the public commentary given by Darryl Wilson of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1182, representing custodians and maintenance workers. He cited a case in which an outsourced custodian who was bothering a student was found to have two felonies on record, and reminded the board that all current custodians have been fully background-checked by the state.  Relying on a private company to have properly arranged for background checks for all employees is risky, he argued, and opens up the risk of convicted felons being granted access to students in schools or on buses.

Another speaker, a bus driver, argued that offering lower salaries and fewer benefits would lead to higher turnover, and that beyond the issue of safety, the loss of familiar adult faces on the buses would diminish the quality of students’ educational experience as a whole. Karen Kozacki-Snell, a representative of the Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee for Special Education, echoed that sentiment at the beginning of her report later in the meeting. As the parent of a special education student, she said, she especially appreciated the consistency of her child’s bus driver.

A bus driver with 16 years of service to the district put it this way during public commentary: “A lot of us are divorced or single … The majority of us wanted the pension.” She also suggested that the number of employees, and their families, who would need to move out of the district if they were let go, could have a substantial effect on district enrollment numbers. Another bus driver with three years of service added, “One of the attractive things about this job for me, at my age, is the health insurance at 10 years of vesting.”

A member of the Teamsters Local 214, representing bus drivers and monitors, argued that privatization did not reduce costs with food service, and that it would not with transportation, either. He referred to a study by Roland Zullo, of the University of Michigan’s Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, which claims that privatization  “… indicate[s] no substantive decrease in the cost of student lunches and a modest increase in the cost of breakfasts with private food management.”

Many speakers mentioned that no one else could do their jobs any better than they do, and that no hired company will hold the interests of the district paramount. As one put it: “The company will say what you want to hear. They will pretend to work for the Ann Arbor Public Schools, but their priority will always be to make a profit.”

Another speaker said the fact that the district is not intending to sell the bus fleet implies that it might want to change its mind about transportation staffing in the future. He spoke of the “synergy” among custodians and other school staff, claiming that privatizing would “break the egg.” He warned board members that “you won’t be able to put the so-called ‘genie’ back in the bottle if you don’t like it.”

Budget Presentation and Update

Superintendent Todd Roberts and deputy superintendent for operations Robert Allen repeated the same presentation they had given at each of the four community budget forums earlier this month. They stated the purpose as two-fold: so that the board could ask any questions it had, and so that any community member who had not been able to attend a forum could watch the presentation on CTN as the BOE meeting was replayed this week. [Chronicle coverage of the Jan. 7 budget forum: "Ann Arbor Schools Seek Input on Budget"]

Roberts stressed that the suggested cuts were “not a plan” at this point, and that the plan will develop over the next month and a half. He said he appreciated the many thoughtful conversations and suggestions that have been offered by the 600 people who attended the four community forums, and the 200 who have completed an online survey. He mentioned two ideas from the community that could be incorporated: making need-based scholarships available for sports participation if it is decided to make sports “pay-to-play”; and charging a fee for participation in non-athletic activities as well.

Roberts urged any community member who had not yet given input to please do so. Board president Deb Mexicotte later also encouraged anyone who could not attend a meeting to complete the online survey. She reiterated that the board had received 200 online surveys, but “would love 2,000!” She also invited the public to attend a newly-scheduled board study session on Feb. 17, at which community feedback will be analyzed.

The final budget plan is scheduled to come to the board for first review at its meeting on March 24, and for final approval on April 14. Roberts explained that AAPS is not legally required to adopt its final 2010-2011 budget until June. But, should the district choose to proceed with increasing the number of AAPS students through the Schools of Choice program, a plan would need to be finalized by April in order to ensure adequate staffing of those schools.

Many board members offered encouraging remarks to the community regarding the work at hand.

Glenn Nelson mentioned that he joined the board in 2002, and that the current 2010-11 budget contains the smallest foundational allowance from the state that he’s ever seen. But he said he “feels good about” how the superintendent, BOE members, teachers’ union, and parents are working together “as a team.” He also thanked everyone who came to the budget forums, and described the discussions he heard there as “among caring people who want students to have an excellent education.” In thinking of the lessons learned from Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson said public education needs to be funded at a level consistent with its importance: “An excellent education is an important civil right.”

Simone Lightfoot thanked the public in general for the warm welcome she has received since joining the board, saying, “I have something on my calendar every day.” She recently had the opportunity to visit Mitchell Elementary’s after-school program, as well as Roberto Clemente Student Development Center, and said she was greatly impressed on both visits despite some preconceived notions. Lightfoot said though there is a lot of work to do, she looks forward to Ann Arbor being at the front of change at the state level.

Irene Patalan thanked the community for attending the forums, and said that seeing the hundreds of concerned people there has been a “profound learning experience,” and made her proud of her community. While describing the district’s strategic plan as the “guiding light” that drives her, she advised: “Change can be scary. We are changing; we have no choice … I’m choosing to look at this as an opportunity to do even better than we do now … I do believe in us.”

Requests for Proposals Issued

During the presentation, board member Adam Hollier asked how much of a difference privatization would make in total expenditures, and was told that his question could not be answered until the privatization bids were received and analyzed by the district.

Two requests for proposals (RFPs) have been issued by AAPS – one for privatizing transportation services, and one for privatizing custodial and maintenance services. They are due on Feb. 12, 2010. The full RFPs are available for viewing on the board of education website, as part of the Jan. 20, 2010 board information packet.

State Education Funding and Legislative Update

Roberts mentioned that while talking to the community has been very helpful, the district will also continue conversations with the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) and Michigan legislators to address not only cost containment, but also the inadequate funding of the School Aid Fund.

In addition, a special briefing was added as an action agenda item for Wednesday’s meeting regarding signing a service consolidation plan (SCP) agreement with the MDE. This agreement would have to be signed by Feb. 1, and could lead to the receipt of an additional $1.7 million in flexible state funding from Part 31A of the School Aid Act if the district qualifies.

In return for receiving the additional funding, the district would agree to consider consolidating business or instructional services with other districts or the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD).

Roberts explained that there is some question of whether or not APPS qualifies for this funding. Currently, it looks like the district is not actually eligible based on phone conversations Roberts has had with MDE representatives; however, if this is the case, it is unclear why AAPS was included in a list of districts invited to submit SCPs. Due to this uncertainty, as well as the “flurry of legislation flying” at the state level, Roberts said he would like to have an agreement to develop an SCP on file with the MDE by the Feb. 1 deadline in case the requirements are modified to the degree that AAPS qualifies.

He explained that signing an SCP agreement does not commit the district to do anything it is not considering anyway, and that consolidation of services with other districts is already under consideration.

Mexicotte agreed, saying that this agreement would serve as a “placeholder” in case it is determined that AAPS is eligible for 31A funding.

Hollier asked about the threshold for funding: If the last cut had gone through, would AAPS  have been low enough to qualify? Roberts answered no, and explained that currently, the threshold for qualifying for 31A funding is a foundation allowance of $8,489 or less, which would mean AAPS does not qualify, but that upcoming legislation could change the threshold, thereby making AAPS eligible. [The AAPS currently receives $9,325 in per-pupil funding from the state.]

Hollier suggested that, should the board vote to sign an SCP agreement, Roberts should include a letter along with it, suggesting the legislative changes that would be necessary to cause AAPS to be eligible for the funding.

The board then approved on roll call vote, with all six trustees in attendance voting yes, the addition of the signing of an SCP Agreement with the MDE to the consent agenda, which was then approved along with other items.

Roberts also included an update on other proposed state legislation as part of his superintendent’s report. He emphasized that these bills are all focused on cost containment, reminded everyone that they might not pass, and described them as ideas “from the folks in Lansing helping us.” They include:

  • A bill that would allow “hold harmless” districts, including Ann Arbor, to use their sinking funds like bond money;
  • A bill that would make all public employees pay 20% of their health care premiums;
  • A bill that would cap the non-instructional part of district budgets at 28%, and require competitive bids for all K-12 non-instructional services; and
  • A bill that would reduce the pay of all public servants by 5%, frozen for three years.

First Briefing Items: Parking, Computers, and Facilities Naming

The board considered a number of items at “first briefing” – the board sees items twice, at a first and a second briefing.

UM Football Parking

Deputy superintendent Robert Allen recommended that the bid for managing the parking of vehicles at Pioneer High School during University of Michigan football games for the 2010-11 season be awarded to Great Lakes Environmental Services.

Since 1950, the district has been mandated to provide parking at Pioneer during UM football events, as part of a land purchase agreement with UM. If approved, this would allow Great Lakes Environmental Services to keep 11.9% of the revenue brought in from parking fees, and pass on the rest to the district. Board member Irene Patalan suggested that raising the cost of parking per car would not deter fans, and could be encouraged as a way to increase revenue. Allen confirmed that the gross revenue from football parking would increase by $1 million if the cost of parking was raised from $30 to $35 per car.

Computer Replacement

Joyce Hunter, the administrator for middle/high schools and career and technical education for the district, presented a recommendation to use $35,093 of this year’s Perkins Grant funding to replace the computers in the Business Education Computer Lab at Huron High School. Trustee Susan Baskett asked questions that clarified a number of issues: the total cost of the quote from Dell; that computers would be purchased, not leased; and that the life cycle of computers in AAPS buildings is 7-8 years. Hunter clarified that the Perkins Grant affords just enough money to do one lab each year. Trustee Deb Mexicotte commented that 7 or 8 years is a long time in the life of a computer.

Naming of Facilities

Liz Margolis, director of communications for AAPS, introduced two requests to name facilities in honor of AAPS staff. It was recommended to co-name the Pioneer High School track after the boy’s cross-country and track coach Don Sleeman, and to name the Tappan Middle School gym after former physical education teacher and coach Rob Lillie. Superindentent Todd Roberts commented that both recommendations meet all criteria and board policy.

A former student reported that Don Sleeman was recently named national track and field coach of the year, and inspired his athletes to do better in all aspects of their lives. A parent who spoke in support of Sleeman asserted, “That guy – he’s like a pirate! He is heroic to me, and to all the boys. He’s 70! I want that man to drive by the field, and see his name there.” [Sleeman was recently honored with a mayoral proclamation at the Dec. 7, 2009 Ann Arbor city council meeting.]

Trustee Susan Baskett clarified that the official name of the track would be “Westfield-Sleeman” track, as it would be named not only for Don Sleeman, but also for Bryan Westfield, a change that the board approved last year. Baskett asked about the process from this point forward, and Margolis confirmed that, if approved, the booster clubs would be authorized to raise money for a sign, and that it would take about six months to complete.

Trustee Glenn Nelson stated that it was a “pleasure to honor these people. These are fun times – these are joyful times. I’m just glad we’re doing this.”

Deb Mexicotte, president of the board, reminded her colleagues of the comment someone made last spring about how having two great people to consider naming the track after was a great problem to have, and she expressed pride that “our community solved it.”

Rick Weiler, assistant principal of Tappan Middle School, spoke on behalf of Rob Lillie, saying Lillie was his mentor and a “most gracious gentleman.” He said, “I’d be considered a success if I could fill just one of his shoes.”  Trustee Simone Lightfoot and Margolis also expressed support for Lillie, having had him as a teacher themselves or known him as a district parent. Mexicotte and Nelson also made statements of support.

Weiler explained that Lillie is currently out of town and unaware of this effort, so he will be duly surprised if the recommendation is approved. Margolis requested that if it is approved, that Lillie could be recognized by the board at a future meeting, since he would not be here at the time of approval. Nelson said Lillie would be a joy to honor.

Hikone Student Presentation

At the beginning of the meeting, the 16th group of students to participate in the Hikone Exchange Program gave a presentation. Usually students only go to Japan every other year, but this last trip was a special additional trip because it was the 40th anniversary of the Ann Arbor-Hikone sister city partnership.

Each speaking briefly, the 11 students (one was too sick to attend) described their experiences with everything from the program’s selection and fundraising processes, and the language and cultural preparation they did, to adjusting to their host families and schools, and some of the specific sites they visited in Japan.

Trustee Glenn Nelson asked the students to describe a piece of Japanese culture that they wished was a part of our culture here. Students mentioned the greater accountability of students to their own learning, the fact that people wear masks when they’re sick to prevent the spread of germs, and how the giant photo booths at the mall were interactive: “You could draw on it!”

Trustee Susan Baskett asked Larry Dishman, the program’s coordinator, about the ratio of applications to students accepted to the Hikone program. Dishman acknowledged that there are more applicants than can participate, saying a few years ago he took 18 students, but that was too big. Twelve students is a good number, he said, but “we could go up to 14.”

Trustee Deb Mexicotte thanked the students for their presentation and said how much the board looks forward to hearing from them after each program year.

Trustee Irene Patalan mentioned that thinking of the trip put a smile on her face, and that she was really proud of all the students.

Additional Accolades

During the opening of his superintendent’s report, Todd Roberts reported that the Preschool and Family Center has just won accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, an arduous process, and a fitting tribute to the work of its former principal, the late Connie Toigo.

Also achieving awards were Huron and Pioneer high schools, who each received silver rankings from US News and World Report, and Community High School, which received a bronze. Roberts added that the awards are based on a wide range of performance indicators.

Roberts enumerated a number of other awards to individual teachers in the district, and mentioned that all 131 buses passed the Michigan State Police inspection.

The meeting was closed after the conclusion of the executive session, which had been recessed in order to begin the public BOE meeting at 7 p.m.

Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice president Irene Patalan, secretary Glenn Nelson, trustee Susan Baskett, trustee Adam Hollier, and trustee Simone Lightfoot. Also present as a non-voting member was Dr. Todd Roberts, superintendent of AAPS.

Absent: Treasurer Randy Friedman.

Next Regular Meeting: February 3, 2010, 7 p.m., at the Downtown Ann Arbor District Library, 4th floor board room [confirm date].

One Comment

  1. January 24, 2010 at 7:13 pm | permalink

    Privatization is just one more step toward erasing the middle class from the landscape. If there is money enough to attract private contractors, who certainly expect to make a profit, there is a way to continue the present system of workers being employed by the school district, paid more than minimum wage and enjoying the benefits of insurance and pension. These jobs have always commanded respect and demanded responsibility and that, in my opinion,is important to a healthy city. I think the defeat of the WISD millage request was a disaster and those who voted against it should be offering alternatives other than privatization.