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Privatization discussed at school board meeting

 

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent 

  Possible privatization of services and the future of several hundred jobs was the main topic of discussion at Monday night’s regular monthly meeting of the Henry County Board of Education.

The possible privatization of custodial and lawn services for Henry County Schools was the main topic discussed at Monday’s Board meeting.                                    Photo by Monroe Roark

  Sporting red shirts in a show of solidarity, most of the audience members were in attendance on behalf of the school system’s custodial and lawn service employees since word has spread that the board is soliciting bids to outsource those services.

According to school system officials, a total of 315 employees are included in the custodial and groundskeeping departments. Out of this year’s budget, $9.2 million is allocated for their salaries and benefits.

  A number of people at the meeting wore buttons with such phrases as, “We support our public school employees,” and, “Don’t privatize! Our schools aren’t for sale.”

  The meeting started 30 minutes late due to a prior executive session during which the board heard student disciplinary appeals. Once the public session began, many in attendance were more than ready to make their concerns known to the board during the public participation portion of the meeting.

  The first speaker, a representative of the Georgia Association of Educators, stated that the majority of employees live in the districts of the schools where they work. They know the students and their families. They have many years on the job and plan to stay.

  “These are professionals,” he said. “They love the jobs they are in.”

  One custodial employee expressed concern that he and many others learned of this issue in the community rather than hearing it straight from the leadership of the school system. He said this was disrespectful.

  “We can do better than this,” he said. “These people are our neighbors. We worship together, and we play together.”

  As with most of the speakers on this topic, he returned to his seat amid a standing ovation. Many of the comments throughout the night elicited a response that could be compared to a revival service in a local church.

  Several themes were repeated throughout the evening. The board was warned about the economic effects of mass layoffs that would come from privatization, such as health care costs that would be passed down to the taxpayers and a lack of tax revenue due to a rising number of foreclosed homes owned by people who could no longer pay their bills after losing their jobs.

School security was mentioned often during the discussion. Many were concerned that contracted workers would not be as sensitive to the needs of the students as long-time employees, and having relative strangers roaming the halls of the school buildings each day was not a good idea. One speaker even raised the possibility of lawsuits stemming from inappropriate actions a new worker might commit with a student.

  The overall comments did come solely from affected employees. Concerned parents spoke up as well.

  “These are people,” one man said. “There are some things more important than a dollar.”

  None of the board members commented on the issue at the end of the public participation period. There has been no board discussion since the annual retreat, when the decision was made to solicit bids, according to school system spokesman J.D. Hardin.

  The bid period ends March 22, and the board will likely address the bids at the next work session, which is scheduled for March 27 due to spring break.

  Possible privatization of various services has been discussed several times over the years as the school system faces ongoing budget difficulties – as much at $200 million lost over the past 10 years due to state funding reductions and falling tax revenue in a down economy. The fact that bids are being solicited this year, however, does not guarantee that privatization will occur, Hardin stressed.

  “This decision [soliciting bids] was not made lightly,” he said, adding that the board’s many responsibilities include being the best possible stewards of the taxpayers’ money. Any bids under consideration would be scrutinized very strictly to ensure that safety and security of students and employees, among other considerations, would be met.

 

 

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