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Districts Tap Private Firms for Support Services

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Six out of 10 school systems have considered hiring private companies to run their districts or at least some portion of them. So says a new National School Boards Association survey.

However, privatization remains most popular in support areas such as custodial services, transportation, and food operations. A majority of the districts want to keep control of academics, despite a few highly publicized experiments in which private companies have taken over instruction in public schools.

The informal survey of 354 school districts, released this month, does not focus on experiments with such companies as Education Alternatives Inc., the Edison Project, and Alternative Public Schools Inc.

According to "Private Options for Public Schools: Ways Public Schools Are Exploring Privatization," 40 percent of districts that contract with private companies do so in the area of facilities maintenance. Food service, transportation, and vehicle maintenance follow close behind.

The report adds that 14 percent of districts contract out special-education services, which is the highest percentage for any instructional area.

Search for Savings

Saving money is the biggest reason for contracting out services. District officials in Olathe, Kan., reported that hiring an energy-management company saved them $1 million over three years. And the Ferndale, Wash., district now breaks even on food service with a private contractor instead of losing $50,000 a year by handling it in-house.

Still, many districts found such savings to be elusive. The Weslaco, Texas, district, for example, canceled private contracts for facilities management, food, and transportation because it was not saving much money and the contracts hurt staff morale.

Districts surveyed warn that private contracts can suffer from a lack of cooperation from district employees, poor performance on the part of the contractors, and ineffective communications. The high rate of staff turnover in the private sector surprised some school officials.

Districts should thoroughly check out any potential contractor, the report concludes.

For More Information:

Copies of "Private Options for Public Schools" are available for $15 each, plus $3.75 shipping and handling, from the National School Boards Association, 1680 Duke St., Alexandria, Va. 22314-3493; (703) 838-6722.

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