Not every member of the countywide school board who voted against outsourcing custodial services in February is still trying to stop the contract to carry that out.
But enough were at the Thursday, April 25, special meeting of the board that there was another delay in going through with one of the most critical decisions the 23-member body will make about the merger. And another four to six school board members were absent during the series of votes.
Right behind the custodial contract is a recommendation to come on partially outsourcing transportation services. And just a bit further out is consideration of closing 11 more schools just months after the board voted to close four Memphis schools.
Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson complained Thursday that delaying the decision would start a “domino effect” that puts the board behind on other critical merger decisions by the Aug. 5 merger start date.
“I implore you,” he said. “We really are at risk. We’ve got so many things to do. The information is here. Make a decision.”
The two school systems are spending a combined $34.7 million on custodial services for school buildings with Memphis City Schools using an in-house system and Shelby County Schools outsourcing the work.
The proposed contract with GCA, which does custodial services currently for county schools that the school board voted down twice Thursday, totaled $21.9 million, a $12.8 million savings.
“We’ve already decided we are going to outsource,” school board Chairman Billy Orgel said as the discussion veered into questions about what would happen if the board failed to follow its vote in favor of outsourcing in general with a contract.
“We can not clean our schools or we can let Judge Mays make that decision,” he added, a reference to U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays. He has control of the 2011 merger consent decree all sides in the federal schools merger lawsuit agreed to, and indicated earlier this year that he doesn’t think the school board has moved fast enough. He appointed Rick Masson as special master to oversee the board’s moves and Masson was watching as the board debated and voted Thursday.
Hopson told school board member Dr. Jeff Warren, who asked what would happen if no contract is approved, “We will not be ready for the school year and that will be a disaster.”
Warren was among the board members who remain opposed to outsourcing because they are opposed to the lower pay it will mean and don’t totally trust assurances that GCA will hire MCS custodians as long as they pass the criminal background check.
“We’re taking money from poor people,” Warren said.
“It’s just not true to say we’re balancing the budget on their backs,” Hopson replied, noting the 26 percent cut in the central office staff amounts to a $14 million savings toward the budget proposal he takes to the Shelby County Commission in May.
Hopson pushed the board hard on the issue a month into being interim superintendent of both school systems and with slightly more than two months until the new fiscal year begins – the first fiscal year of the consolidated school system.
Hopson began his tenure in March saying his priority was to make cuts everywhere but in classrooms and acknowledging that would involve some tough choices.
School board member Patrice Robinson questioned whether schools will be cleaner with a private company and whether county schools are cleaner now than city schools.
“You didn’t compare,” she told Hopson. “You can’t tell me today the difference in the two.”
“I can’t say they are $12 million cleaner in Memphis City Schools,” Hopson responded. “If we don’t get these savings we are going to have to cut more deeply.”
But Robinson continued to push back, saying it is important for parents to know “unequivocally” that schools are not “filled with mold and mildew and unnecessary germs.”
School board member Tomeka Hart questioned why the merged school district couldn’t go with in-house custodial services and just cut the pay of the former MCS custodians.
“There’s nothing magical in that,” she said. “We could do that.”
Hopson said the school district cannot do that because of prohibitions in the state law that sets the ground rules for the consolidation and employee pay and benefits.
Hart acknowledged her opposition to outsourcing but voted for the GCA contract.
“I don’t know what else to do,” she said.
School board member Reginald Porter agreed.
“We’ve got to make a decision,” he said. “We can’t keep going back and forth.”
Orgel called a special meeting after the Tuesday, April 30, regularly scheduled voting meeting of the school board to again take up the question as well as a coming recommendation from the administration on a partial outsourcing of transportation services.