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Less Bang for Your Buck with Outsourcing

School Districts Get What They Pay For With Sub-contractors

Dave Arnold

You've heard me say it in some of my articles: "You get what you pay for." That has always been my philosophy. You want good wood, then go with oak, mahogany or pine. Plywood is okay, but you get what you pay for. You want to tile your bathroom floor?

Then don't even look at vinyl. It doesn't matter what you are dealing with: household items, cars or employees.

If you want quality, you've got to pay the price.

This is why I'm frustrated when I hear of a school district trying to save money by outsourcing services. Don't district officials want the best employees they can find? Then why outsource jobs that have been performed by experienced, dedicated education support professionals (ESP) who live, shop and vote in the district where they work?

Outsourcing on the Increase

I live and work as a school custodian in a small, rural Illinois community. I rarely feel the threat of sub-contracting or outsourcing. But I recently learned that sub-contractors have been snooping around my district.

A few weeks ago, with the majority of the school employees on vacation, I was taking advantage of the solitude. My workday and workplace was full of uninterrupted bliss.

It was the perfect time to paint the elementary school hallways. I was concentrating on doing a perfect job and oblivious to what was taking place outside the building. Then one of my co-workers called and asked what a sub-contractor's van was doing outside the main door. That got my attention.

Asleep at the Wheel

I found out that the sub-contractor's employee had the seat laid back and was taking a nap. He snoozed for more than two hours. Here I'm diligently working while just a few feet away an employee of a sub-contractor is taking an afternoon nap in a company vehicle, and likely getting paid for it! Our taxpayers got what they paid for!

It seems that outsourcing labor at schools is on the rise. For example, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonpartisan research and educational institute based in Michigan, conducted a privatization survey in 2008 which shows that "more than 42.2 percent of 550 conventional public school districts surveyed in the Great Lakes State contract out for at least one of the three primary non-instructional services - food, custodial and transportation. "Survey 2008: School Service Privatization Grows Again " found that 10 net new districts are now contracting for at least one support service, a 4.9 percent rate increase from 2007."

Standing up to Sub-contractors

Not everyone follows this path. In Enfield, Connecticut, a school board retained the district's 60 custodians despite an auditor's recommendations to outsource the jobs. The Hartford Courant reported that "48 of the custodians are district residents and many of the custodians are close to the students and their families."

Similarly, some sub-contractors are close - maybe too close -- to school board members. In a July 16, 2008 story by the Southtown Star, Steger School District 194 in Illinois awarded a $180,000 contract to clean the Columbia Central School to the brother of a board member. They stated that their decision was based on the quality of services rather than the relationship to the board member. However, the contract cost was $40,000 more than the lowest bidder.

The Plaque of ESPs

Outsourcing is one of the biggest problems that plague ESPs. As I talk with ESPs from all corners of the nation, they all tell of school districts that have outsourced jobs. Money, they tell me, is always the prime factor in the school board's justification.

As America celebrates Labor Day this month, Americans should be reminded that it wasn't cheap labor that built this nation. It was built by dedicated, hard working people who had the mindset of a good day's work for a fair wage.

(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is a custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.

Dave's View has been discontinued following the retirement of its author, Dave Arnold. Even though new columns will not be posted, we encourage you to review past columns.