A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

In the Oxford Community Schools this year, the classrooms were cleaned every other day due to attrition in the unionized ranks of the custodial staff.

Starting next year, the classrooms will be cleaned every day, they will have nine extra custodians, and the school district will save $5 million over the next five years, according to school officials.

William Skilling, the Oxford superintendent, said by privatizing custodial services, the district saw overall expenses go from between $17 to $20 an hour with the unions to $9 to $11 an hour with private contractors. They also were able to increase the number of custodians from 25 to 34 while still saving millions of dollars.

"We don't exist as schools to be employment agencies," Skilling said. "We are going through difficult economic times."

Felicia Hicks, staff liaison for AFSCME Local 1472 that represents many Oxford school employees, didn't return an e-mail seeking comment.

The Michigan Education Association has been a critic of privatization efforts. Claiming one-sided media coverage, the MEA launched a "complaint box" on its website. It allows school workers to file a complaint about "shoddy work done by privateers doing the jobs that used to be done by school employees."

Doug Pratt, spokesman for the MEA, didn't return an e-mail seeking more information on the complaint box.

James Hohman, a fiscal policy analyst with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said many schools are finding privatization saves money.

A 2009 Mackinac Center study found 246 districts had privatized either custodial, transportation or food services.

Hohman said there's a reason why Oxford was able to hire more custodians and still save money.

"It just goes to show how out of whack their in-house costs had been," Hohman said.

"Those contracts are usually negotiated without competitive pressures. It meant that for years upon years, school districts were paying above-market costs, which is good for the employees but bad for the taxpayers."

Skilling said the district considered privatizing the transportation services. That would have saved the district $300,000 a year. Instead, the district got the union to give up $200,000 in concessions and kept the union employees.

"The greater good was served even though we left $100,000 on the table so to speak," Skilling said.

He said the vast majority of transportation workers live within the school district.

"There is that human element and the overall goodwill for the bus drivers and their families," Skilling said. "We can't lose sight of that. It's all about relationships."

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Maintaining a free flow of information with taxpayers in the district is also important to Skilling. Oxford is also one of a growing number of districts that has placed its district check register on the Internet. Additionally, the district also posts all of the employee contracts on its website.

For a full list of districts participating, please see www.MichCapCon.com/9329.

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