School boards don’t typically decide to hire outside companies to do work historically performed by their own employees in order to boost quality.

Or to find more loyal workers.

Or to help students.

They do it because they’ve bought into the scam that they might spend less for the same (or better) services. But, this isn’t an article about money.

It’s an article about service. And, when you spend less, you usually get less.

You get less service. Or poorer quality. Or fewer "intangibles" – like loyalty and pride in one’s work, that, while difficult to measure, are still important.

Like most teachers, I’ve devoted my career to helping students. I believe that every decision in education should answer the simple question: Will this help students?

Outsourcing the work of dedicated public school employees — custodians, bus drivers, teachers, food service workers, and other important people who work together to educate students — doesn’t help children. In fact, it can negatively impact students.

In Holland, where I work, the school board decided to outsource, or privatize, the jobs of people who cleaned and took care of our facilities and the people who operated our printing services.

Things haven’t been better — or even the same — since.

It’s safe to say that many people, including some school board members, don’t understand the roles that custodians play in educating our students. They do more than "just" clean classrooms and mop floors, to be sure.

Custodians strive to provide a safe, clean and healthy environment for children to learn. Without such an environment, students and teachers can be sidetracked from their work by anything from needing to empty a trash can to getting sick due to unsanitary conditions.

Since our school custodians were fired, teachers have noticed many problems, including some that have gone unaddressed for long periods.

Teachers don’t know from day to day or week to week who the custodian assigned to their building will be. Therefore, we can’t rely on touching base with the building custodian on various day-to-day issues that arise in our schools. To the detriment of students and staff, the private company hired to handle custodial needs schedules different employees to different buildings, according to their wishes and employee availability. When the custodians were employed by the district, they were assigned to a specific building and other staff (and students and parents, too) knew who the custodian was for that job site.

Holland teachers now have to type up formal requests for any and all custodial needs, a burdensome task that takes time away from teacher planning and preparation. What’s more, many teachers opt to "just do it themselves" to ensure the work gets done instead of submitting a formal request and hoping the work will get done eventually.

Scheduling changes have hurt quality, too. Teachers report that student bathrooms often smell and are not cleaned from time to time, that classrooms aren’t thoroughly vacuumed regularly and that it can take weeks before desks or tables are moved for vacuuming.

Since each building doesn’t have a consistent custodian, employees of the district’s maintenance department are now called on to attend to mishaps.

Last year, a vomit mess in one of our elementary buildings was left in a hallway for more than two days because maintenance staff members weren’t able to free themselves from jobs elsewhere. The spot was simply sprinkled with absorbing pellets and covered with a chair so people would walk around it and not through it until it was cleaned up.

Another problem is noticeable at the high school, where mold in one classroom is visible across several ceiling tiles. The mold has been reported during each of the past two years, yet the odor and discoloration remain.

These are just a few examples of how outsourcing the custodians’ jobs has negatively impacted quality.

In my school district, the jobs of people who print and copy materials for students were also outsourced. The district hired a major private company to do the work. Yet this company doesn’t have the same expertise as our in-house employees. Outside companies hold no loyalty to individual school districts; they are for-profit companies that need to sell more copies to make a profit.

About a year after taking over the copying work in my school district, staff completed a survey of the company’s performance; it included questions about professionalism, responsiveness and overall satisfaction. The survey revealed high levels of dissatisfaction. Nearly half rated their overall satisfaction "below average" or "poor." They also said their orders weren’t produced as requested or when requested.

At a time when more is expected of our students and our schools, we shouldn’t accept less from the people and companies with whom we do business.

In the debate over outsourcing the work of local school employees, I hope that more school boards will consider the quality of work needed to ensure that students have a safe, clean environment that is conducive to learning.

Anything less is unacceptable.

Charles Bullard is a teacher and high school band director with Holland Public Schools.

Reader Comments

It takes a whole village to raise a child. I can remember who my lunch lady was, the janitor and the aides...all of my years in education. Now, my sons do also. And I want to keep it that way! Our school system has choose to remain public and not privatize. Good people for good students...adding the personal touches and feeling as a team...

Disclaimer: Due to the constant kid/student focus there may be a high influx of errors in grammar and spelling. Please forgive.
- Ann Vayre, teacher, Saginaw Arthur Hill High School.

Why is your district accepting this poor service from the company? Apparently expectations haven't been met or aren't being addressed. The district is paying for the service and should address issues. You would address issues with your housekeeper, your mechanic, or anyone else you hire, and it shouldn't be any different here. A meeting should be held with the director of the district and the contracted service to address these issues. The company doesn't want a bad rap, as they rely on positive referrals for business. I don't think it is asking that much to formally address needs/wants. It is a good tracking device when outsourcing or in-house.

I don't think quality should have to suffer.It seems like you would have a greater control over quality with the company you hire, versus employees who have been there for 30 years and "won't change", or are in a union and it is hard to get rid of. You can get rid of outsourcing company due to poor quality I would think, even if there is a contract. They change and address your needs or you get someone who can. In outsourcing you don't have to deal with other issues also in regards to personnel such as lack of sub coverage, worker's comp, leaves, grievances, etc. However, I do feel it is a detriment to outsource due to the fact that usually those employees are the ones living in the community and have a direct link to how positive your school is perceived, and loyalty to the district, passing bonds, etc. The school may be their livlihood, and those are factors to consider as well.
- Kim Browning, reader, Pinconning, Mich.

I totally agree with Mr. Bullard about the quality of work and dedication of staff members when employed as public employees in public schools. If employees feel valued then I believe it shows in their work. Everyone from the principal, teachers, lunchroom supervisors to the maintenance staff and bus drivers have a stake in making sure that our students are well-educated, happy and in a safe environment. I can't imagine our school without the dedicated staff in charge of our 650+ students.
- Yvonne Shafer, Community School Organizer, West Maple Elementary School, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Regarding privatizing of services in public schools, I would think that it comes down to the organizations leadership. From a leadership standpoint, some questions would need addressed. What is the current level of service in a particular area (i.e. Food Service)? What is the price tag for the current service? Then, on the other hand, what is the potential quality of the same service contracted out...price tag (check references)?

I have been blessed in the New Lothrop Area Public Schools to have non-instructional staff that are part of our community. Many of them went to school in the district and have children going to school in the district or even grandchildren who attend school in the district. They consider the school, staff and children their own and take their job very personal and serious. Consequently, we have very good services at a very reasonable price tag.
- John Strycker, superintendent, New Lothrop Area Public Schools.