would save $11.7 million over three years by contracting with two companies to manage bus drivers, custodians and some grounds workers, Board of Education members learned this week.
In an era of budget worries — Rochester is facing a $10.8 million deficit next year — this bottom line spurred board members to ask district leaders to move forward with the contracts.
"I believe this is our fiscal responsibility — it's what we were elected for," said Board President Jennifer Berwick. "I do not think we can not move forward with this."
A formal vote is expected at the board's April 16 meeting, though all board members present (Chuck Coutteau was absent) indicated their support for privatizing the services.
Here's a look at how the contracts would work.
The transportation department
The privatization of the district's transportation department would cover the entire department: 150 positions, including drivers, aides, dispatchers and secretaries.
The district received bids from four firms. An interview team, which consisted of two school board members and administrators, selected Durham School Services as the potential contracted company for transportation services. Durham serves 350 school districts in 30 states and also has a Canadian component; Birmingham Public Schools' transportation department is managed by Durham.
Durham's proposed three-year contract would save the district $4.7 million over three years.
Durham would likely hire 85 percent to 90 percent of the current RCS drivers, said Dan Romzek, assistant superintendent of businesses.
Drivers would likely be offered an hourly wage increase, though there would be increases in healthcare costs and the loss of other benefits, such as vacation and sick days.
The privatization of the district's custodians would cover about 100 employees: all custodians and the three high school grounds positions.
The district received bids from six firms. The interview team selected GCA Education Services as the potential contracted company for these services.
The company employs 30,000 people in 45 states; they manage custodians in several area school districts, including Birmingham and Royal Oak.
GCA's proposed three-year contract would save the district $7 million over three years.
The interview team made a surprise visit to five schools under contract with GCA. They found the buildings "very clean and well maintained," according to a report given by Romzek and John Stoner, director of operations. It's not known how many current RCS employees would be hired by GCA; their wage and benefit packages were said to be "competitive."
The audience reacts
Andrew Jaracz is a bus driver for the district. He spoke to the board, wearing a poster board sign that listed the multitude of roles a bus driver plays.
"We are the eyes and ears of Rochester," Jaracz said. "Say 'no' to privatization; it's not the answer."
He mentioned the relationship the drivers have built with the students in the district. "Do you have in mind a private company you trust to haul this cargo?"
He was among about 20 employees of the custodian, grounds and transportation department who pleaded with board members to reconsider the privatization of their services.
Those who spoke out cited concerns about childrens' safety, about hiring non-Michigan-based companies and about, in general, taking a division of the school district out of the school district's control.
Board members and Superintendent Fred Clarke said they sympathized with those who spoke at the meeting.
"As you see, this evening Rochester Community Schools is faced with a very difficult time," said Clarke. Three years ago, the district was faced with a similar situation and was able to hold off on privatizing these services thanks to the "generous sacrifices" of the employees, Clarke said.
"This is different. Something's gotta give. We are left with choices and unfortunately none of the choices are good. Unfortunately we can't control the costs."
In the end, Clarke said, it comes down to keeping the budget cuts as far away from the instructional programs as possible.
Board members speak
Board member Beth Talbert agreed with Clarke in praising the transportation and custodial employees for their sacrifices in the past.
"You responded with grace and professionalism that is unprecedented in my professional career," she said.
But Talbert said she looked at all of the options for cutbacks in the district — from teachers and media specialists to some athletics and building budgets — and concluded she wanted to make the decisions that have the least impact on classroom learning.
Board member Gerald Moore said the decision before the board was no different than a household budget. If you have to make budget cuts at home, you take one less trip Up North or you cut your satellite or cable provider, Moore said.
"Considering the cost-savings of this, it would be irresponsible to not move forward," he said.
Board member Lisa Nowak said the district has few good choices left when considering budget cuts.
"We've cut all the fluff," Nowak said. "The choices before us are all difficult. We are required by law to balance a budget."
Board member Jane Pierobon said Rochester "just doesn't have money to pay for everything we'd like to." Board member Pat Piskulich called the decision "unpleasant" and "horrible."
"This is the world we live in. This is not going to go away until the economy turns around," he said.
Right now, there are several services in the district that are contracted with private companies. They include the food service department, the subsitute teacher management program, the para-educator program and other administrative positions.