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Stopping subcontractors before they start.

Political action is emerging as the most effective way to stop school boards from handing support staff positions to private contractors.

"Head it off at the source," says outgoing New Jersey Education Association President Betty Kraemer.

NJEA supports Assembly Bill 1220, which would prohibit school boards statewide from subcontracting the jobs of employees covered by existing contract agreements.

But even if A-1220 passes, Kraemer notes, political action will need to continue at the local level. "You have to keep proponents of subcontracting from winning seats on school boards in the first place," she says.

What to do when your board already has subcontracting on its mind?

A year ago that question faced the 6,500-member Orange Educational Support Personnel Association in Orlando, Florida. The issue: the district's intention to hire two subcontractors to handle 23 night custodian positions in three buildings and a five-person grounds crew.

OESPA's response: hold the district to contract language requiring "impact bargaining" before contracts are let--then strengthen the language.

The impact bargaining dealt not with the 28 custodian and grounds maintenance positions themselves (all were shifted to the private sector for the duration of the three-year contracts), but with the placement of the district employees who'd been in those positions.

All were offered other jobs with the district. None was demoted. OESPA made sure the district gave them choices and took into consideration special situations like length of commute or responsibilities for child care.

Still, OESPA leaders aren't altogether happy with the way this first go-round of impact bargaining worked out.

"There was confusion about exactly when the district was obliged to notify us that contracting out was under consideration," says Bill Humphreys, OESPA's chief negotiator, who headed the impact bargaining team.

"In our latest contract, we've added a provision that the board notify us, seek our input, and share information as soon as it starts to investigate the feasibility of contracting out," Humphreys adds.

OESPA has not given up on getting rid of the subcontractors altogether.

"We're asking principals and teachers and support staff to document deficiencies on the part of subcontractors, such as the need for extra work because they didn't complete a job or security violations like unlocked doors," says OESPA President Ruby Strickland.

"We've also got three new board members--one endorsed by us--who seem to be taking a critical look at subcontracting," Humphreys notes.

In the meantime, he observes: "The general feeling is that cleaning service isn't quite as good as when our own people were supplying it.

"We also miss the personal service--the willingness to go the extra mile, take stuff out to your car, for instance."

* Facing the school board's threat to contract out bus service, the ESP and teacher members of New Jersey's Evesham Education Association handled political action a bit differently.

They persuaded the board to put the subcontracting issue on the budget ballot in April 1993.

Specifically, the Evesham voters were asked to approve a waiver that would allow the district to spend nearly $1 million above the capital spending ceiling for two purposes: to keep class size from increasing and to retain the district's bus drivers on staff.

By a 2:1 margin, that's exactly what the voters chose to do.

* If you can't head it off, "get it in writing." Michigan's 32-member Hudson Educational Support Personnel Association finally got anti-subcontracting provisions after being without a contract for three and a half years.

The key language is spelled out in a letter of understanding that's part of the contract bargained in 1992:

"The employer retains the right to assign bargaining unit work to nonbargaining unit members for incidental work (emphasis added)," and: "In case of severe financial crisis, the parties agree to discuss other possible options."

In other words, the district agreed to bargain major subcontracting.

* About 100 miles south of Fairbanks, Alaska, the 21 members of the Delta-Greeley Educational Support Personnel Association are also proud of anti-subcontracting language included in their contract last year:

"The district shall not contract or subcontract bargaining unit work out of the school district if subcontracting or contracting work out would result in layoffs or reduction of hours of bargaining unit employees."

When Jobs Are in Danger, Go Public

School bus driver Pat Breitzka is secretary of The Classified Association of the Michigan City Area Schools, Michigan City, Indiana.

"Last year on the last day I drove before the Christmas break," Breitzka recalls, "headlines in the evening paper announced that the school corporation had decided to subcontract food service, maintenance, custodial, and transportation work.

"I thought to myself: 'Merry Christmas from the school corporation.'"

Did the headlines make you mad?

Yes. As a bus driver and a taxpayer, I knew that subcontracting was not what was best for our school district. That's why I jumped in to work against it, eventually becoming chief spokesperson for The Classified Association.

What did you do?

We wrote letters to the editor. We got on local TV news and radio talk shows. We sat down and made a list of every organization we could think of--from the board of realtors to private clubs to church groups to other unions and the PTA, and we spoke at their meetings. We got 10,000 signatures on petitions.

So people believed you?

Yes, because we had the facts. In February, the board put out the bid specifications, and we compared their specs with what we did--and for how much money. That's how we convinced the groups we spoke to: we had the facts.

Did you change the school board's mind?

No. All seven members were firmly in favor of subcontracting. In fact, last spring they forced us to sign a contract that made no mention of subcontracting. We'd been without a contract for a year, and they said if we didn't sign they'd subcontract on the spot.

But there was a happy ending?

Yes, through political action. That's how our public information campaign paid off. In June 1992, the three candidates we backed all got elected--defeating three incumbents. Next year, we'll try to get our candidates into the other four seats.

Are you safe 'til then?

I think so--there's a swing voter who may vote with us. What we really need is to have in our contract the same provisions the board was willing to give the outside contractors: six months' notice of intention to change the contractor.

Any advice to others facing the subcontracting threat?

Sure: know your facts, inform the public, and make sure voters know what each candidate represents.

How To Stop Subcontracting

* Ask members to report all rumors about contracting out.

* Monitor board of education meetings closely.

* Check out the subcontracting history of new administrators.

* Stay in touch with your state Association and with other locals.

* Be especially alert during a budget crunch.

* Make written suggestions for improving services and cutting waste.

* Make sure elected officials, community leaders, and the general public know where ESP members stand on contracting out.

* Request copies of any studies the district does on contracting out.

Adapted from the NJEA Reporter, January 1993. For the complete checklist and a copy of NJEA's bill A-1220, write Rob Broderick, New Jersey Education Association, P.O. Box 1211, Trenton, NJ 08607, 609/599-4561, FAX 609/394-3355.
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Title Annotation:What We Want: Public Jobs for Public Schools; includes related articles
Publication:NEA Today
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Gaining a voice in school reform.
Next Article:Stopping bad medicine with good politics.

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