Contracting idea brings out workers

Written by CHRIS COLLINS, Baker City Herald December 17, 2008 02:45 pm

The Baker School Board’s Tuesday night work session took on a holiday air accented by the red sweaters, blouses and shirts of about 20 members of the district’s classified staff.

Bus drivers, cooks and maintenance workers and paraprofessionals turned out for a presentation by Victor Musial, the Oregon School Employees Association’s director of field operations. Musial traveled to Baker City to give the association’s perspective of contracting services currently provided by district employees.

“We were there in support of what Victor was presenting to the board,” said Ruth Woodworth, a Baker Middle School librarian and president of the Baker Chapter of the Oregon School Employees Association. “We wanted to show the faces of the people affected by contracting out.”

Musial told the board that the association had developed a PowerPoint presentation to address the issue after losing hundreds of jobs across the state to contracting.

“InSource Oregon was designed to educate people up front,” he said. “Everybody’s a stakeholder.”

The district’s classified employees are concerned about a recommendation presented to the board earlier this month by a committee of community residents who are in favor of contracting food services, janitorial services, the district print shop and care and upkeep of school and Baker Sports Complex grounds.

Musial said contractors might save the district money initially, but they do so “on the backs of employees,” who could see their wages and benefits cut by as much as 40 percent.

Those reductions then are felt by local businesses where workers shop, he said.

Many of the companies who contract with Oregon school districts are multinational firms, which means that not only do wages drop, but some of the money the district pays goes overseas, Musial said.

Another economic impact is seen in communities when school employees search for work paying wages and benefits comparable to what they earned in the district.

“These people live locally and have their children in schools,” Musial said.

In addition to the financial losses to their communities, other districts that have moved to contracting have seen a decline in the quality of services provided.

Districts have experienced insufficient or poor cleaning efforts by contracted custodians. Cafeterias see a high turnover rate, reduced choice and poor-quality nutritional value for students, he said.

Some districts that have contracted bus services have seen delayed maintenance and repairs on the buses and an increase in the number of accidents. The turnover rate also is higher, with seniority for school district drivers averaging 14 years compared to a three-year average for contracted drivers.

And because districts usually sell their buses to the contractors, the contractor decides when and how the buses are used. First Bus, a company that contracts with Western Oregon schools, typically runs its buses all summer long providing charter service, Musial said. And the cost of replacing those buses is built into the contracts.

“You’re still paying for them but they’re not yours,” he said. “No matter how you slice it, we think it’s a bad idea.”

By working collaboratively with districts, OSEA employees have helped districts save money without contracting out, Musial said.

The Astoria School District had considered contracting its bus service, but after conferring with the association to resolve some problems, not all of which were financial, the district has continued to staff its own transportation service.

The Harney County School District, which serves Burns and Hines, had considered contracting its food services program, but instead sought help from the Oregon Department of Education. The state sent a person to inspect the program and a system was devised to help increase revenue and cut costs, Musial said.

The Baker School District is in the process of contacting the ODE for help in streamlining its food services program as well, Superintendent Don Ulrey said during Tuesday’s work session.

Musial encouraged the board to work with the association to help preserve district jobs and benefits for its members.

“We are always ready to help any way we can to address issues and fix problems,” he said.