Thursday, February 22, 2018
Politics

Pasco School Board race puts spotlight on privatization debate

LAND O'LAKES — This year, the Pasco County School District is budgeted to spend $28 million on student transportation, $33 million on food services and $68 million on building operations and maintenance.

One School Board candidate has suggested that someone else might be able to provide these services better and cheaper.

"I would want a comprehensive investigation into anything we can or should outsource," said Don Stephenson, who's running for the School Board seat in District 2. "It's finding ways that we can make lasting changes to our ongoing expenditures."

Stephenson has focused his attention on privately run school buses. He believes it's the area for greatest potential savings.

District 2 incumbent Joanne Hurley staunchly opposed selling the district's 440 buses.

"If (privatization) does not work, you will never ever have the opportunity or the funds to purchase back an entire bus fleet," Hurley said.

She did not completely dismiss the notion of parceling out some district services, though. If the district can save money by having a private firm manage student transportation using district-owned buses, she said, that might be an option.

Most important, she suggested, is taking enough time to explore the possibilities.

"What we have to start doing is planning farther out . . . if there's something major we want to do, so we can budget for it and work out the kinks," Hurley said.

Officials from other Florida school districts agreed that time is critical.

Privatizing Collier County's custodial services in 2008 required lengthy negotiations, chief operational officer Michele LaBute said.

Bay County School District superintendent Bill Husfelt said if he had one piece of advice when considering privatization, it's "start early . . . and ask a lot of questions."

Bay decided this summer to hire an outside food services provider only after several months of investigations and dragged-out talks with unionized staff, he said. By contrast, the district backed away from outsourcing student busing after arbitration with the union would take too long.

"There was not enough time to do it without causing problems by the first day of school," Husfelt said.

Employee obligations are a key part of almost any privatization.

The Marion County School District, which outsourced some custodial services, won't expand the initiative because of a negotiated agreement preventing such a move, district spokesman Kevin Christian said.

It's not because the effort didn't work, Christian noted.

"We've generated at least $1 million in savings," he said.

LaBute said Collier's privatized custodial services have had positive benefits beyond an annual savings of about $3 million.

"There were some things we never thought about," she said.

The district saved money on its workers compensation insurance, for instance. School principals, who previously managed the custodians, now have more time to spend in classrooms. And cleaning supplies cost less because private companies with many clients buy in bulk.

Bay schools hope for similar positive results. The district changed food service providers because many students expressed dissatisfaction with cafeteria food, Husfelt said. The private firm, which collects students' money for the meals, promised to provide at least $750,000 in revenue back to the school district — an amount the district's own food services department could not guarantee.

The company also offered expertise, Husfelt added. "They know what food service is all about."

Sometimes, that's not enough.

A private school bus provider was fined by the Duval County School District in February for leaving about 100 students stranded as its buses shuttled Daytona 500 race fans.

Concerns over such things steered Collier schools away from outsourcing busing. Moreover, LaBute said, "those drivers are driving children. Parents . . . want those employees to be ours."

When looking at privatization, she said, the district must consider what's best for children, weighing savings versus costs.

"And the costs," she said, "are not necessarily financial."

The Pasco school system already has outsourced some functions, including lawn maintenance. Purchasing officials regularly examine existing services to determine whether the same work could be done more efficiently by other providers, Pasco schools spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said.

Hurley said she would prefer not to consider some departments, particularly the standalone entities and operate profitably, such as the PLACE after-school program and food services.

That shouldn't stop the district from looking at departments where savings might arise, she said, and "trying maybe one."

Stephenson said he's looking for bolder action, to avoid an annual hand-wringing as the board and administration search for places to cut. Still, he acknowledged the potential pitfalls involving parent concerns, employee security and other matters that leaders in other districts have mentioned.

"I would want this to be a community-involved process," he said. "I won't vote for this if it gives our service employees a raw deal. . . . There is more than just money at stake."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter at @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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