Rochester schools consider more privatizing

Facing a shortfall of nearly $11 million for the 2012-13 school year, Rochester Community Schools appears headed toward privatizing its transportation, custodial and high-school grounds services.

Jason Grant, AFSCME chapter chair for 250 employees known as the Blue Group, said Monday night that the group submitted a proposal to the school district offering $800,000 in concessions. So far, he said, the district has not responded.

“We were expecting a counterproposal,” Grant said. The two sides were scheduled to meet again March 27. The employees’ contracts expire this year, and bargaining has been going on since February, he said.

Three years ago the same employees took concessions that added up to $2.2 million. This time, Grant said, things are different.

“They were negotiating three years ago,” he said. “This is absolutely different.”

School employees picket before Monday's board of education meeting.

On Monday, bids from private companies were submitted to the board of education which the administration said will save the district $2.8 million the first year. The district has already outsourced its food service and many other non-instructional staff, and is planning to seek proposals for parking lot attendants and mail carrier positions.

District spokeswoman Deborah Hartman said Tuesday that the employee groups did not respond to the request for proposals with a formal bid. Negotiations are continuing so no further details are being released.

At Monday’s board of education meeting, Assistant Superintendent for Business Daniel Romzek said it would take “significant concessions in wages and benefits” for the Blue Group to match the prices of the administration’s recommended bidders.

Steady increases in mandatory retirement payments to the state are one reason. In 2004, school districts paid 12.99 percent of payroll into the public school employee retirement system known as MPSERS. The rate for 2013 is more than double that at 27.37 percent.

“That’s an important fact when we look at how did we get here,” Romzek said. “That’s a question that is often asked.” Legislation introduced just last week offers “some glimmer of hope,” he added.

At a January workshop, the board of education directed administration to balance next year’s budget through a combination of spending cuts and use of the fund balance. The board is looking for cuts in the range of $3.5-$6.1 million.

A list of possible cuts was presented to the board Monday. It includes staffing reductions among learning consultants, para-educators, clerks, media specialists, counselors and special education. Other options include eliminating middle-school athletics, the police liaison program and the ACE alternative high school.

On April 16, the school board is scheduled to vote on the outsourcing. On May 7, the administration is scheduled to make its prioritized recommendation on proposed cuts. A public hearing on the budget is set for June 18.

School-bus driver Andrew Jaracz told the board Monday that in privatizing the Blue Group, “You’re aiming at the wrong target.”

“The downside of this is you still have the liability and you still have the accountability,” he said. “Rochester is not dying, like some of our neighbors. It’s still a desirable community.”

“I’m concerned about trying to balance the budget on the backs of 20 percent of our employees,” said Sue Cullen, an employee and resident. “In our last contract in 2009, to save my job I had to take a 25.5-percent wage cut and have my health benefits cut. …. I beg you to look elsewhere to find ways to balance your budget.”

Resident Lisa Adam, mother of a special needs child, called privatization “a quick fix. I don’t want to live in a school district that believes in quick fixes and I don’t think other people want to either.”

Superintendent Frederick Clarke said the district is facing “extremely difficult times.”
“Three years ago we were faced with a similar situation … and we were able to hold off due to the sacrifices of the Blue Group,” he said. Now, “None of the choices are good.”

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