By Marc Freeman, Sun Sentinel
9:33 p.m. EST, February 12, 2012
The workers who clean bathrooms, drive buses, fix busted lights and trim trees for Palm Beach County’s largest employer — the school system — could be replaced in a bid for cheaper help.
This potential turn to outsourcing offers still-unclear benefits for taxpayers, and follows mixed results in South Florida and the nation when it comes to farming out labor.
But a citizens committee wants the School Board on Feb. 22 to seek offers from companies willing to take control of the school district’s custodial, grounds, and maintenance departments.
And the board’s volunteer advisers, trying to chip away at a possible $35 million budget shortfall, also favor studying the pros and cons of having a private operator handle bus service for about 58,000 students.
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“It would provide greater focus on our core business, which we all know is educating students,” said Shirley Knox, district budget director, outlining one of the key reasons for considering such a dramatic shift.
But the proposal has come under attack even before it gets a close look. The Florida Public Services Union, representing most of the 2,700 potentially affected district workers, says “considering privatization as a means to cut costs and increase efficiency is a fallacy.”
Spokesman Eric Conrad points to a district report showing that before gaining any savings, the district would be responsible for paying $18.9 million in sick and vacation time to the displaced employees.
On top of that figure, the district has unclear costs of overseeing the transition to contract labor and paying unemployment benefits for workers who aren’t hired right away.
“While we are aware of the fiscal challenges the school board is facing, privatization will compound the issues rather than resolving them,” Conrad said, adding that the union wants to work with the district on ways to save money.
The school district had a reportedly lousy experience the last time it tried a form of outsourcing on a large scale, in 1998. It contracted with ServiceMaster to manage custodial and maintenance services, but encountered numerous complaints from the schools. The district brought the operation back in-house after 18 months.
“It was not well-received,” Chief Financial Officer Michael Burke said. “It was widely perceived as a failed attempt.”
Today, the district outsources on a limited basis, paying private companies for campus lawn mowing and various specialty maintenance tasks.
The budget includes about $2.6 million for hiring grass cutters and $10.9 million for businesses to help to make campuses more accessible for the disabled, fix elevators, adjust hurricane shutters and perform other services.
The citizens budget committee says it can’t hurt for the School Board to at least hear what companies could offer in potential savings for taking on entire departments.
Committee Chairman Ed Tancer says kicking around the idea already has prompted union and district officials to start exploring ways to reduce costs.
“This whole outsourcing discussion, whether a decision is made to outsource or not, has been healthy,” he said. “If we don’t look at it, we’re never going to know what the savings are.”
But Florida Public Services Union director Afifa Khaliq said the issue has created a lot of unnecessary anxiety for the workforce. The employees are worried about losing their jobs, or being hired again at lower salaries.
School Board Vice Chairwoman Debra Robinson said she’s “open to ideas” but worries about losing dedicated, experienced workers and encountering problems with their replacements.
“It’s about more than just money for the school district,” she said. “We shouldn’t kick people to the curb who are doing a good job for us.”
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