Roanoke Schools Embrace Privatization to Cut Costs, Focus on Education

Privatizing transportation will free up money for classroom

States and municipalities are not alone in facing tremendous fiscal pressures these days. School districts nationwide are being forced to cut costs to respond to the challenges of budget shortfalls and declining tax revenues.

In this context the Roanoke school board’s recent decision to contract out school transportation services is a notable development that other Virginia school districts should watch closely, as it offers a timely reminder that privatization can be a powerful tool to help “right-size” school districts and keep them focused on their core mission of educating children.

Last week, the Roanoke city school board voted to contract with a Pennsylvania-based bus company to provide transportation services; the board estimates this will save the school district approximately $250,000 annually. In addition, the company will purchase the district’s fleet of roughly 150 buses and will acquire 15 new buses every year to replace the aging stock over time. The district’s current drivers who meet minimum standards will be offered positions with the company.

A Roanoke Times article noted that one school board member said “a private transportation system would make it possible for school officials to focus more on instruction without the distractions of running a bus system.”

Indeed, privatization in non-instructional support services-such as transportation, food or janitorial and maintenance services-is a proven management tool used by school boards nationwide to help sharpen their focus on providing core educational services while simultaneously right-sizing the bureaucratic support structure underneath.

For example, a 2008 survey of Michigan’s 552 public school districts by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy found that 42 percent of the districts were contracting out for food, janitorial and/or busing services. The research also identified one Michigan district which estimates a three-year savings of between $14.7 million to $21.5 million from privatizing all three services, creating a savings of $557 to $814 per pupil every year. A similar survey in 2007 found that 78 percent of school districts contracting out services reported cost savings from privatization, and nearly 90 percent reported that they were satisfied with their privatization experience.

Similarly, a 2008 survey by the Illinois Policy Institute found that 56 percent of school districts in that state contracted for one or more of the aforementioned services, with 43 percent contracting for transportation services (though recent changes in Illinois state law now threaten to reverse the trend towards privatization).

School districts seeking ways to cut costs and streamline have additional options as well. For example, a 2005 study by Reason Foundation and Deloitte Research estimated that U.S. public schools could save an estimated $9 billion-the equivalent of funding for 900 new schools or more than 150,000 new teachers-by combining just a quarter of their non-instructional service costs with other school districts. The study also notes that in many places, at least 40 percent of every dollar spent on education never actually makes it into the classroom and is instead spent on business operations-transportation, food services, information technology, building maintenance, administration and other bureaucratic support functions.

The good news for school districts is these same services are widely provided in the private sector, usually at a lower cost, at a higher quality of service, and with a lower risk exposure.

For instance, Roanoke stands to realize significant long-term operational savings, both in terms of service delivery and maintenance obligations. The district will no longer be responsible for the future costs of owning and maintaining 150 buses, taking a major risk off their hands. In fact, policymakers routinely cite this sort of risk transfer as a key benefit of privatization-contracting out offers a powerful method of shifting important long-term capital and operations/maintenance risks to the private sector. And when the contract is up for renewal in five-years, the board can re-bid it to ensure that they’re choosing the most cost-effective service provider.

As with any privatization initiative, the key will be developing a strong, performance-based contract that holds the company accountable for meeting enforceable standards that policymakers set. The school board will need to establish an ongoing process for monitoring the contractor’s performance and ensuring that they deliver. Luckily, Roanoke can learn from the experiences of many other districts around the country, so they won’t have to reinvent the wheel.

With a bleak fiscal forecast on the horizon for state and local governments, school districts in the Commonwealth will need to make strategic management decisions along the lines of Roanoke’s if they’re going to provide a higher-quality education for less money in an increasingly challenging fiscal environment. Budgets may rise and fall, but districts’ core mission-preparing students to compete in an increasingly competitive global economy-doesn’t. As Roanoke demonstrates, privatization is one tool districts can use to free up dollars from bureaucratic overhead and drive them into the classroom where they belong.

Leonard C. Gilroy is the director of government reform at Reason Foundation and a senior fellow at the Thomas Jefferson Institute. This column was originally published in Bacon’s Rebellion.