Choosing from what they called a "bucket of bad choices," the Rochester Board of Education voted 7-0 Monday night to outsource transportation, custodian and partial grounds services beginning in the fall.
It's a move that will over the next three years and it's necessary, board members say, as the district is facing a $10.8 million shortfall next year — the largest in Oakland County, Superintendent Fred Clarke said.
It was a vote wrapped in emotion: Board members and a crowd of about 100 people listened for almost an hour as transportation employees pleaded with the board to keep their jobs.
"This saddens me deeply," said Kristen Schwark, the aunt of a student and a transportation department employee. "Making this decision will be wrong on every level except balancing the budget.
"Do you realize the chaos that will ensue next year?"
Andrew Jaracz, also a transportation employee, said the board would be guilty of "148 counts of wrongful termination of employment" if it voted to privatize.
And Rebecca French, the parent of a special needs son who was driven for 20 years by the transportation department, told board members to "consider the old adage: You get what you pay for."
Clarke put the decision in perspective: state cuts to education have forced the board to make difficult decisions.
"The funding is just not there anymore," Clarke said. "None of us went into education because we want to cut budgets. That's the state we're put in by our legislators.
"We have to look at noninstructional cuts from the budget before instructional cuts. There are no good choices. As one member of my administration team said, it's a bucket of bad choices. It's close to the heart."
The bottom line, Clarke said, is that outsourcing transportation services to Durham Services will save the district $4.7 million over the next three years. The contract with GCA Education Services will save $7 million over three years.
"We are in crisis mode right now, and I wish there was some other way to do this," he said.
Board members asked for clarification on several components of the contracts with both companies. Here are the answers they received from school administration:
- The move will, essentially, eliminate the entire transportation and custodian departments as well as three grounds positions in the district.
- All of the employees in those departments will receive layoff notices, except for the transportation manager, who will be kept in that role for one year to help facilitate the transition.
- The contracts will be for three years; after that, they will be reviewed year by year.
- Laid-off employees will be able to apply for positions with Durham and GCA. "They are very, very interested in working with our staff," Dan Romzek, assistant superintendent of business, said about Durham. He mentioned Durham will offer an incentive for current drivers to work for the company. Both companies perform drug and alcohol screenings and extensive background checks, Romzek said. GCA's screening process for custodians is more extensive than that done by the district now, Romzek said.
- Durham trains drivers to assist special needs children.
- Durham will provide busing for field trips and athletic events as well as for school. The buses will still say "Rochester Community Schools."
A committee of board members and administrators performed background checks on both companies, visiting other schools in Oakland County that contract with the companies and talked to building principals for first-hand references.
Board members said their decision came with sadness.
"We would be naive to believe we are making a decision that doesn't come with a loss to our district," board member Beth Talbert said. "A number of years ago we asked that employee group to step up and they did. There has never been about any doubt in their work ethic."
Talbert said that if the board did not vote to outsource the transportation department, she feared that soon the district would not be able to afford transportation at all.
"There is no decision that won't have a human impact," she said. "Keeping buses is a critical service. I support this with sadness."
Julie Wright, a graduate and parent in the district, advised board members and community members to direct their anger about its decision not toward the board but to their representatives in Lansing. She specifically called out Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, and Sen. Jim Marleau, R-Orion Township, for making cuts in state education, which local districts are "powerless" to battle.
Board President Jennifer Berwick, who repeatedly had to calm the crowd during Monday night's meeting, said the district was "hanging on by a thread."
"As board members, we have to make decisions that are in the best interests of our students," Berwick said.
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