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Privatization gets another look as way to cut costs

The budget picture for the schools hasn't improved, so Hillsborough School Superintendent Walter Sickles is exploring another option for cutting costs: privatization.

The mere possibility has employees and union officials buzzing and prepared to oppose any plan that includes hiring a private company to do work now handled by school employees.

Speaking at a gathering of business leaders Tuesday, Sickles raised the possibility of privatizing some operations. Sickles has raised the possibility before, in a memo to School Board members in August when he detailed the areas he would consider privatizing.

They include mail service, a portion of maintenance, security, a portion of risk management, a portion of data processing, some components of transportation, and a portion of the custodial operations.

"I know that's not going to be popular with some," Sickles said Tuesday. "But, we've got to find a way to cut our costs without hurting our people."

Sickles pointed out that nothing had been decided yet. In fact, nothing specific has been proposed. Sickles has asked some school officials to explore privatization in some areas and write a report by January.

Still, the possibility has union officials riled up.

"We're definitely going to oppose it," said Bonnie Ramsey, president of the Hillsborough School Employees Federation, which represents the employees who might be most affected by privatization. "They are looking at it to save some money. But, there is no private company that isn't looking for a profit," she said.

"This is a volatile issue," said Steve Fischer, associate executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. "People who work for school systems are not there because they want to make a lot of money. They're there because they like kids. Corporations don't have an interest in kids. They're interested in making a profit."

Hillsborough isn't alone in considering privatization. Polk County has experimented with privatization and has been happy with the results.

Six years ago, the Polk School Board hired a private company to manage the district's custodial services. The custodians are still school employees, receiving regular pay and benefits. But their supervisors are managers from the Service Master Corporation.

"It wouldn't necessarily work for everybody," said Robert Manley, assistant superintendent in charge of business and finance for the Polk schools. "Frankly, we weren't doing a good job managing our custodians. So, this works better for us."

Manley said the district now saves about $1-million a year with the privatized system because it need fewer custodians. He stressed that no one lost a job in the transition.

The Hillsborough school district has considered privatization before. Assistant Superintendent Michael Bookman said that about one and a half years ago, a company claimed it could do garbage collection cheaper. The district explored the possibility.

"The company looked into it, and saw they couldn't do it cheaper," Bookman said. "We didn't go with it.

"This is not a done deal just because we're looking at it."

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