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A Voice Crying in the Wilderness of Privatization

March 12, 2010

There should be no doubt by now that Nashville is ground zero for the privatization of public services and functions, and during the past 40 years of life in this city, I have seen the rise of the belief that privatization is the solution for all of our ills. So, when Jesse Register and the school board developed a budget for 2010 that moves school custodial services from the public to the private sector no one should be surprised. For years private companies like Corrections Company of America (built in the legacy of Hospital Corporation of America) have told us that they can provide public services cheaper and better, and for governmental officials fearful of being branded as “tax raisers,” having an outside company shoulder the responsibility seems like a good political move.

And yet, over time, we seem to find again and again that problems arise when we try to marry the profit motive with public services. The pressures to cut corners in the service of the bottom line are always present in a corporate setting, pressures that are understandable, but which can lead to tragic results. No private company is ever founded with the intention of making mistakes that harm the public good. The founders of CCA (full disclosure — my mother worked for the company in the founding days) truly believed that they could not only save money but do so in a way that was more humane and met recognized standards. And yet, as a variety of court cases have suggested, the pressures over time to make a profit trickle down to the point where bad things happen.

On the surface, there seems to be some logic beyond turning over custodial services in Metro Schools to private companies, albeit a cynical move that is ultimately about busting the power of the union, cutting payroll expenses, and most importantly taking a whole class of workers out of the benefits pool. In the short term an argument can be made given the current budget climate. And yet, what fails to get answered is how the safety of our schools and more importantly our students is maintained when we turn over a publicly administered service to an outside entity whose only concern in making a profit.

Certainly, the decrease in the pay scale for workers will more likely than not lead to a decline in the cleanliness of the buildings, something that was demonstrated in some earlier experiments at privatization. In a time when schools are already struggling with flu epidemics, can we really trust that sanitary conditions of our schools to folks who are making about the same as an average McDonalds employee (have you been in a McDonalds restroom lately?).  Yes, contract standards can be specified, but then we create an entirely new level of bureaucracy to ensure that the standards are met, usually underfunded and unable to meet the demands of supervising these outside entities.

A greater concern is who maintains control regarding the nature of the employees of these companies? Currently all employees of Metro Schools have to go through a criminal background check and are reviewed by a human resources staff trained in protecting the safety of our kids. Will the average cleaning company have the same expertise and incentive to likewise ensure that the minimum wage employees they hire (with most likely a high rate of turnover) be drug free, without criminal records, and not at risk for stealing equipment and/or harming children? Will Metro Schools have the same issues of liability, and if so, don’t they have a responsibility to ensure that people who work in their buildings meet the highest standards? Can we really expect the average cleaning contractor to likewise maintain those standards in the face of economic pressures?

What about the fact the currently the custodians are the face of the school system to outside groups (such as churches) that rent our school buildings?  These MNPS staff members are the persons who open the school buildings to outside groups and ensure that these groups don’t abuse the facilities and keep them in good shape. Will these outside companies be given the same responsibility and what is their motive for ensuring the overall well being of the building? And if there is a need for the presence of an MNPS staff member at all of these events, who is going to take on that task, or are we going to forgo the revenues generated by these building rentals?

Privatization sounds good on the surface. It’s when you get into the details that things become much harder. Yes, private entities may be able to generate cost savings, but can they also ensure that we receive quality services as well. Can a private company match the level of service offered by our publicly funded custodians for a lower price? That is a question that no one is currently answering.

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