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VOL. 127 | NO. 88 | Friday, May 04, 2012

Planning Commission Recommends Outsourcing Schools Custodians and Buses

By Bill Dries

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The schools consolidation planning commission is recommending that the merged school system outsource custodial work at schools as well as bus transportation for students to private companies.

The vote by the panel Thursday, May 3, is a preliminary vote but with most of the 21 members there and all but two to three voting for the recommendation, it is an important indicator.

Richard Holden, the former chief of operations for the Shelby County Schools system and head of the logistics committee making the recommendation, said the custodial outsourcing and cutting back to one school engineer for every two schools could save $22 million to $25 million a year.

Outsourcing the transportation of students by bus, as the county school system currently does, would also involve selling the existing fleet of buses owned by the city school system to the contractor. And the committee recommended three school start and dismissal times so drivers could make multiple trips and fewer buses would be needed.

Planning commissioner and countywide school board member Martavius Jones objected to both recommendations, citing the job losses.

“We would be impacting … largely people who live in Memphis and Shelby County,” he said of the custodial jobs. Jones also said city and county leaders should consider tax freeze incentives for economic development that require businesses getting other breaks to still pay the full tax rate that goes for education.

Planning commissioner Fred Johnson, a former county school board member, said the change over would probably mean jobs with no health benefits for employees who make the transition.

“In the scheme of things, it’s not very much,” he said of the savings. “I feel strongly about people losing full-time jobs with benefits.”

But planning commissioner and former Shelby County Commissioner Tommy Hart said the recommendations are among the tough choices those on the body have to make.

“The choice comes down to whether we’re an employment agency or whether we’re an education agency,” Hart said. “Are we going to be in education or are we going to be in the employment business?”

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said if the new merged school system is to have any significant savings, those savings inevitably involve fewer employees because personnel costs are by far the largest expense for both school systems.

Johnson and Jones argued it amounts to a choice between people and savings.

“I’m trying to look long range,” Johnson said. “I’m looking at incarceration rates in this community that are deplorable. The crime rate is deplorable and these are the kinds of things that contribute to it over the long haul.”

Other critics of the recommendation said some of those who lose their jobs might never work again.

“It sucks either way,” said planning commissioner Staley Cates who said the choice was about whether to put more of the money for public education in the classroom instead of other areas.

He also asked about the possibility of voluntary buyouts “since it seems as if we think they are totally screwed forever and most likely on their way to prison.” The latter part of the thought was a reference to comments by Johnson and other critics of the outsourcing.

“If this is this divisive here, then on the school board it will be worse,” Cates added on a more serious note, referring to the decision to come by the countywide school board on whatever blueprint the planning commission recommends.

Holden said the request for proposal for contractors in both cases would specify that they should try to hire school system employees. Holden said in other RFPs with such a clause usually about half of those holding the jobs get jobs with the contractor.

Meanwhile, the educational services committee recommended and got preliminary approval of 32 points that include a goal of universal pre-kindergarten access that would involve a mix of existing school district pre-k programs with private pre-k programs and Head Start programs in the county. The planning commission is recommending the school system set a “single standard” for pre-k readiness.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has set such pre-k program expansions as a goal the city of Memphis might fund outside of the school system once it is free from its court ordered obligation to fund schools to the tune of approximately $70 million a year.

The education services committee also recommends the school system adopt the common core standards set by the state of Tennessee and numerous other states that are currently being phased in. Those higher standards are to be fully phased in the first school year of the merger.

Also on the committee’s list that was accepted was an endorsement of the philosophy of intervening with students who are not making sufficient progress during the course of a school year, continuing optional schools programs in general and setting some kind of standard for the number of advanced placement courses available in all schools.

Planning commissioners sent some of the recommendations back to the committee for more specifics such as the number of AP courses.

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