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On solid ground: outsourcing facility operations and maintenance keeps school buildings up-to-date and contributes to a positive learning environment.

IT SEEMED like an impossible task for the school district: cut energy consumption, enhance building cleanliness and streamline work-order management--all within a short time frame.

Yet, that's exactly what occurred at Detroit Public Schools, says Robert Brown, executive director of facility maintenance for the district that serves about 170,000 students. Detroit managed to cut costs while strengthening its operational efficiency by outsourcing its facilities maintenance.

"Using an outsourcing company has allowed us to get a much better handle on what needs to be done," says Brown, adding that his district now has access to a wealth of professional resources from custodians to engineers. "We've been able to reduce our facilities budget and get increasingly better results. That's hard to beat."

Detroit is among many school districts throughout the country that have discovered the true value of outsourcing. External partners help districts better manage their facilities by implementing a variety of strategies that can reduce utility consumption, maximize resources and empower employees. As a result, buildings and grounds are better kept, run more efficiently and become a source of pride for the district's staff, students and community.

MONEY IN THE BANK

With tight budgets, many school districts face financial challenges, especially when it involves purchasing expensive equipment or completing major repairs. Outsourcing facilities management is an option, which can provide financial relief, while simultaneously improving operations quality.

Several years ago, Bob Cooper, director of facilities management at the East Baton Rouge (La.) School District was brainstorming ways to reduce overall expenditures when he received a proposal from ARAMARK to comprehensively manage the district's facility services, including custodial, grounds and physical plant maintenance. After reviewing the benefits with other school officials, the district accepted the proposal.

After a few years into the contracted program, employees then transitioned to ARAMARK, who continued to offer competitive wages and benefits. To help ease the transition, ARAMARK made financial and managerial commitments to ensure the employee transition would be seamless. Within six months of the contract, the district saved millions in operational costs and reported a jump in overall employee and student satisfaction.

"We appreciated how ARAMARK looked at what our district needed and came up with a proposal from there," Cooper says.

Other times, outsourcing partners have helped districts raise the skill level of employees, which often reduces employee absenteeism, injuries and workers' compensation claims. Skilled and trained employees are usually more proactive and prevent or control situations before they escalate into major problems. Consider Detroit. The school district is so large that emergencies can easily pop up anywhere at anytime within its 260 buildings.

"As opposed to just running around, fixing problems, we're able to get a handle on the projects that are most essential," says Detroit's Brown, adding that outsourcing such management duties has allowed the district to gain a better level of effectiveness.

The Houston Independent School District has experienced similar results. Eight years ago, the district partnered with ARAMARK to implement a variety of facility management strategies. The company first helped the district establish an innovative maintenance program that brought its facilities up to speed and then worked on raising productivity.

So far, the district has realized a savings of nearly $43 million. Likewise, employee satisfaction jumped by 40 percent and employee productivity soared.

BOOSTING SKILLS AND CONFIDENCE

Although controlling expenses is at the top of most school districts' must-do lists, so is developing a satisfied, productive and loyal workforce. Oftentimes, outsourcing facilities management services can boost morale within a district and give employees better access to professional resources, equipment and training.

East Baton Rouge's Cooper says since the district outsourced facilities management, employees have received additional training opportunities that would not otherwise be available to them from the district. Skilled and knowledgeable employees can evolve into empowered employees who provide better service to the district, he adds.

"We've already seen dramatic improvement in how the employees operate" he says, explaining that they now follow established standards covering a variety of areas. "For example, cleaning and floor care chemicals used across the district are now uniform."

For similar reasons, Ken Bird, superintendent of the Westside Community Schools in Omaha, Neb., relies on an outsourcing partner to manage his district's facilities maintenance. Although clean, safe and attractive buildings are a critical component of any learning environment, he says Westside didn't possess the necessary in-house knowledge or expertise to maximize its facilities operation. So it selected an external provider that has since demonstrated its ability to provide cost-effective management and improve and streamline communication for service employees.

"The training level of the employees is so much better and now completely documented/' he says.

In the past, the district also suffered from poor communication problems. Bird says different departments rarely shared information with each other, work instruction was sometimes provided verbally, which often led to misinterpretation, and there were long delays in distributing phone messages.

So when facility requests surfaced--anything from cleaning up a soda spill to fixing a leaking pipe--it took staff a long time to handle them, he says.

But now the department has established communication standards, which have led to requests being resolved with speed and efficiency.

"The communication and timeliness of solutions for issues is significant" says Bird, explaining that employees are much happier and the district has developed a strong, positive image among the students and workforce.

PICTURE PERFECT

People appreciate working or learning in attractive surroundings. Educators and students are no different. By partnering for facilities maintenance, districts can offer this intangible benefit to both staff and students.

In East Baton Rouge, the facility services staff was struggling with keeping its grounds tidy. Approximately 56,000 students walked across its lawns every day, inadvertently damaging the landscaping. To make matters worse, the grass typically appeared shaggy and its edges blossomed with weeds.

It didn't take long for its facilities management partner, ARAMARK, to restore the grounds back to their natural beauty. The results were noticed immediately. "Everyone is extremely pleased with how things look," says Cooper, explaining that the grounds are now a major point of pride for the district. The lawns have "a finished, manicured look, which is really nice to have."

The attractive grounds are in part the result of very specialized expertise and a full range of professional grade equipment newly introduced. "Alone, we could not have applied the resources to make our grounds look like this," Cooper says, adding that the cost for outsourcing is much lower than if the district performed these services in-house.

That's also what Upper Darby School District (Penn.) discovered. Since the district received numerous benefits from outsourcing its food service program to ARAMARK, it hoped to experience similar success from outsourcing its custodial services to the same partner, says Joseph Galli, Sr., superintendent at Upper Darby.

"We wanted the buildings cleaned to a certain level of expectation," Galli says. "We wanted a bottom line met."

Since then, the company has introduced managers with expertise in a variety of specialized areas to share best practices. Galli appreciates such a strong resource bank, knowing that his district's issues would be quickly and efficiently resolved.

As many districts have found, handing over the management reins of facilities maintenance to experienced professionals can raise the level of a district's overall ability to better serve its students, staff, and community.

As Westside's Bird says, "We are a high performing academic district and we want our district to look as such. Outsourcing helps us do that."
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Title Annotation:Facilities Services
Publication:District Administration
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Words:1242
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