We Can Fight Privatization of ESP Work
We Can Fight Privatization of ESP Work
by Dave Arnold
I’ve been around long enough to know that when management starts talking about saving money — it is past time to start organizing. All too often school boards and superintendents start looking at services they can shave / job out / subcontract.
That means they start looking at us — the school support staff — and the work we do to keep the schools operating.
Yes — the nation’s schools are in a pickle. Funding is tight most everywhere. We should and must be good stewards of resources. But speaking broadly from a custodian’s perspective — when you have 50 plus million students to clean up after in the nation’s schools on a daily basis, and a few million more in higher ed institutions, well, you shouldn’t slack off on the personnel who keep the buildings and classrooms clean, safe, and healthy. You should not replace experienced, professional, certificated and credentialed staff with unknowns.
As I follow the news, the issue of subcontracting, aka privatization, of support services in the schools has picked up. Those services — instructional, cafeteria, custodial, facilities maintenance, transportation, technology, security — are looked at by private business owners as ripe for the plucking.
We have such institutions as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to thank for creative thinking and legal language for lawmakers to help school boards and private business make a go of delivering those services into private hands. Listen carefully and you can hear the knives being sharpened in state capitols around the country. These bills would make public education a private commodity rather than a public good.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We know what happens when school services get placed outside the control of the district. Accountability for the work and expenses gets cloudy. Passing the buck gets easier and parents, teachers and administrators with concerns get the side-step shuffle. Work and repairs get put off or ignored. Records get lost. Equipment breaks down or disappears. The everyday miracles and magic that district-employed ESPs do on the job in neighborhood schools go poof!
That’s not all. When private contractors take over your work, you may well be out of a career. Wages decrease and benefits often disappear. The people they hire — not necessarily the people who once did the work — may not be local. Your community takes an economic hit — remember more than 75 percent of ESPs live in the communities where they work. Local businesses lose customers. Tax revenue drops off. It is a chain reaction. And if the subcontracting firm is a large multi-national, they won’t be buying locally either.
Lastly, there is the personal. ESPs are long-term employees — averaging 12 years on the job. We know the community. We have children and grandchildren in the schools we work at. The community trusts us because they know us. We ensure student safety. When hired we have to have background checks.
Subcontracting our work is not a new subject. As I said, it’s now getting more common.
But we know how to fight this trend.
Back in 2007 the Illinois Education Association and a coalition of other unions worked hard to pass a law addressing subcontracting. We were successful. My column entitled Getting Personal contains details and an outline of the bill, HB 1347.
We are very proud of that legislation. On the whole it is doing the job intended —keeping contracts between school districts and subcontractors above board, with specific do’s and don’ts regarding work performed, bid reviews, public hearings, worker wages and benefits, and more. While not prohibiting subcontracting of ESP positions, it levels the playing field. It makes school districts do long-term studies on the effects and true cost of subcontracting. It forces subcontractors to do background checks on their employees and show evidence of it before their employees ever set foot on the school grounds.
It took two years of hard work by IEA members, staff, and other unions to get that law. We met with lawmakers who were convinced by us — the people doing the work -- of its necessity. By lobbying other lawmakers, talking and organizing support in our communities, testifying at legislative committee meetings, and rallying wherever necessary, we did it. Illinois school districts and employees are no longer easy prey to subcontracting practices.
For those of you who are facing a privatization effort, I’m here to say you can fight back. For those not yet affected, I recommend getting prepared.
There are no magic bullets. Fighting back is not rocket science. We apply the very good skills we already possess to the tasks we do. We organize just as we would getting an school event set up, or making sure the buses are running and on time, or organizing our food preparations or meeting with teacher colleagues about classwork. Talking with all ESP colleagues is a start — comparing notes, countering rumors with facts, getting correct information, keeping an eye on the school board and budget process. Conferring with local leaders and staff regularly is highly recommended.
Building community support and understanding of your work at the schools and with students is another way. A neighborhood school is a place of pride in a community. When parents and community members see school staff as essential parts of a unified workforce meeting the needs of every student, they will respond.
Need pointers on building support methods? Or organizing? Or plotting a plan? Your local Association has access to a wide range of resources through your state association and NEA affiliation. They can help with training, strategies and legal issues.
If you hear about a privatization attempt in your district, contact your local president and your UniServ Director immediately. Too often folks are wary of speaking up because they do not want to ‘cause trouble.’ Not taking the trouble to alert your leaders or UniServ could cost you and your colleagues your jobs. Then it is too late.
This is long-term work. There is much at stake. I believe we can do it.
Read for yourself in these ALEC sites what they are doing to take your work away.
Dave Arnold: This school custodian and former Illinois Education Association ESP of the Year is a published poet. He works in Brownstown Community School District # 201. But most Association members know him best from the editorials he has written for various NEA media properties since 2001.
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