Five months ago angry taxpayers packed a Tooele County School Board meeting and pleaded for the board to balance the 2013 budget without raising taxes.
Tuesday night, an audience composed of mostly parents and school district employees, filled the school board’s meeting room and adjoining reception area. They were there to hear a presentation on a potential alternative to higher taxes — an alternative, some fear, that could cost them their jobs.
School board member Jeff Hogan, who works as a scientist at Dugway Proving Ground and is a doctoral student in business administration, made a PowerPoint presentation to the school board about outsourcing the district’s non-certified staff, which includes custodians, bus drivers, and lunchroom workers.
“I entered the Ph.D. program to further my career and make myself a more dynamic employee,” said Hogan. “I quickly realized that the concepts I was learning had applicability to the school district.”
Outsourcing, a practice common in private business, involves contracting with a third-party service provider for work that is often considered not part of the business’s core competency or mission.
The results are lower costs and increased efficiencies driven by the competitive nature of contracting and the use of expert knowledge, according to Hogan.
Hogan pointed out that the school district spends $22.8 million on non-instructional staff, or 22 percent of the district’s total budget.
The presentation by Hogan included a preliminary comparison showing a possible savings of $70,000 in costs to clean restrooms, vacuum classrooms, and clean offices and common areas in one school building.
Hogan knew his suggestion would not be popular. “This goes back to 2010 when the idea of outsourcing was floated,” said Hogan. “There was a lot of push back from the community. So it was not investigated, the board deemed it too disruptive to the community to find out information about outsourcing.”
Last year’s truth-in-taxation hearing, along with information about outsourcing from his doctoral studies, prompted Hogan to raise the issue again.
Not all board members were excited about Hogan’s idea. “You have to remember that our custodians do more than clean,” said Kathy Taylor, the newest school board member who taught at Tooele Junior High for 38 years and knew Hogan’s grandfather. “Your grandfather was one of the best janitors we ever had. He provided a service that he was never paid for.”
Taylor went on to explain that during her years of teaching, she watched students with few friends and little positive adult contact in their lives, hang out with janitors, secretaries and lunch ladies during school. These students received counseling and an adult role model at no extra expense to the district, she said.
Outsourcing doesn’t necessarily mean the wholesale replacement of staff, offered Hogan.
“It has been my experience, and what I have seen in a proposal, is that the service provider will hire as many current employees as possible,” said Hogan. “The provider would hire existing employees to maximize their chance of success in providing high quality service with people that are familiar with the job.”
Some parents at the meeting expressed concern that outsourced employees may not have the same dedication as employees who work directly for the school.
“Out custodian volunteers to dress up as Santa Claus, and our secretary runs our Halloween carnival,” said Stephanie Bothell, a parent with children at West Elementary. “They do these extra things without being paid for them.” The district has other issues to work on before entertaining thoughts of something like outsourcing, according to Taylor.
“The thing I’ve found out from this process and the calls I have received is that we have a problem with trust,” said Taylor. “It starts with the board, people don’t believe me, the board, the superintendent, or the people at the district office. We need to work on morale, accountability, and trust. And it needs to start right here.”
Superintendent Terry Linares for the Tooele County School District, was passionate in her support for the district’s classified staff.
“If we did a study, I bet we could show that we get more for our money from our staff than any management company could. I don’t have any figures, but that is my gut feeling,” she said. “I don’t support outsourcing, but I do support looking at ways to save money. We have saved nearly $11 million in the last four years. We do owe it to the students and our taxpayers to look at every possible avenue to save money.”
Tracy Shaw, a Tooele City resident, called Hogan’s idea a bold approach.
“It is wonderful to see the school board exploring new ideas,” said Shaw. “I’m not for or against the idea, but it is something that should at least be looked at.”
Maresa Manzione, school board president, closed the discussion by informing the audience that the agenda item did not call for a motion or a vote, just the presentation of information.
“The idea will be on the table as we go forward,” said Manzione. “If there is a case where it seems like it is feasible, we for sure want to study that item. To do a study on an outsourcing idea would take more than a half hour presentation. It would take an investigation with a committee and public input.”
“Last year I voted for a tax increase because I truly believed that it was the only option we had,” said Hogan. “I can’t say that any more. If it comes to the point that we need a new tax increase and we have not looked at this, I will not be able to vote for a tax increase. My message is just that it should be looked at.”