Even if the Metro Council granted an additional $6 million to the budget of Metro schools, it appears Director Jesse Register wouldn’t use the money to keep from outsourcing school custodians.
In the superintendent’s own words, the choice to privatize the district’s custodial services was driven by policy preference above — but ultimately also along with — financial considerations.
At last night’s Metro schools’ budget hearing, which at times turned predictably testy, Councilwoman Kristine LaLonde posed an especially pertinent question to Register: If the council allocated an extra $6 million to the district’s budget, where would that money go?
The school board has already approved a budget of $633.3 million, which includes outsourcing the jobs of 600-plus custodians to net a projected $5.1 million in savings. Additional savings would come from reducing the hours of bus drivers and by eliminating 24 central office positions.
Some council members have publicly discussed appropriating additional funds to ensure custodians remain employees of MNPS.
But responding to LaLonde’s inquiry, Register said the choice to privatize is both “a financial decision and a policy decision.”
“If the board were to be given additional money, we would have to put other priorities on the table along with this one,” he said.
Register said he would look at three things: adding 30 teachers to avoid busing English Language Learner students; paying elementary school principals the amount needed to work 12 months a year; and implementing a pay increase for the district’s teachers.
The final priority ignited a chorus of groans from the custodians and drivers in attendance, who stand to have their salaries reduced under the proposed budget.
According to the Metro Charter, the council votes on the level of funding Metro Nashville Public Schools receives. From there, the board decides how those dollars are used. Last week, the board tapped Cleveland, Ohio-based GCA Services Group to carry out its custodial and groundskeeping services.
Board members David Fox, Steve Glover, Mark North, Gracie Porter and Karen Johnson were asked the same hypothetical question that was posed to Register. Only Johnson gave a definitive answer that yes, she would hope to use an additional $6 million to retain the district’s custodians.
“I bet there’s 21 votes on this council to approve giving you more money if we thought you’d use it that way,” Councilman Jamie Hollin said. “I believe there’s more than 21.”
Councilman Michael Craddock, a critic of the privatization move, suggested Register and the board had used the economic downturn to promote an initiative.
“I apologize if this sounds like an indictment,” Craddock said. “But from my perspective, it appears to me, based on what Dr. Register has said a couple of times this evening, that you have taken advantage of the situation and pushed aside some 600 custodians, and cut the hours of another 800 school bus drivers, because the time was right to do it. You could excuse it away.”
The Metro government budget for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, which includes the schools’ budget, is scheduled to go before the council on third and final reading June 15.