Efficiency expert sees outsourcing as solution to school district's woes

The Clark County School District could feed $162 million more into classrooms over the next five years if it pulls money from departments not operating as "efficiently" as possible, namely custodial services and transportation.

That was the message from efficiency expert Greg Gibson, president of Gibson Consulting Group from Austin, Texas, whom the district hired three months ago to find ways to maximize student achievement at the lowest possible cost.

"We're here to basically figure out if you're spending your money in the right place," Gibson said Wednesday at a School Board meeting, adding the district isn't spending enough on students and pays support staff too much.

About $107 million of Gibson's recommended $162 million in cuts would land on the transportation and custodial departments, but the changes can't just be implemented. Many of them must be negotiated with the Education Support Employees Association, which represents district support staff.

"We know these will not be easy conversations," said Superintendent Dwight Jones, adding he supports the report's recommendations and will work toward an implementation plan "as soon as possible" for the 2012-13 school year. Next year's budgeting process starts in a couple of months.

The shifting of funds could turn into a tug of war between the district and the union, which already are at odds over the union's contract for the next two school years. The two sides are nowhere near an agreement after four meetings, said John Carr, support staff union president and chief negotiator.

Gibson's report recommends outsourcing 1,522 custodial positions instead of using in-house workers, as is currently done, saying the district would save $5.6 million in hourly salaries and $4.8 million annually for benefits. The numbers came from 18 months of discussions between the district and a company that provides custodial services for public institutions.

The district pays $2.34 per square foot annually for custodial services, almost 50 percent more than the industry benchmark, Gibson said. The district pays custodians more than usual because it needed workers for the new schools opened each year during the unprecedented growth of the past 25 years, he said. About 200,000 students have been added since 1986.

"No other school system in this country has seen this kind of growth," he said. "It was an employee's market."

But the growth has flattened, and it's now an "employer's market." Either lower pay needs to be negotiated into support staff's contract, or outsourcing must ensue, Gibson said.

Bus drivers also were given financial perks during Clark County's growth. But those benefits need to be dialed down, Gibson said, referring mainly to drivers being guaranteed six hours of pay a day, though many work only four hours. If drivers don't agree to changing this and reducing supervisory staff, the district should consider outsourcing, a $36 million savings over five years, Gibson said.

Outsourcing may be the easy answer, but it's not the right one, Carr said in an interview. District employees go through background checks. If jobs are outsourced, the same level of scrutiny for prospective employees wouldn't be maintained, he said. And these workers have "direct contact with students on a daily basis," he said.

The board and superintendent asserted Wednesday that the district needs to focus on education, its primary purpose. On that front, the district is behind, and its plethora of programs are uncoordinated, Gibson said. That's where money needs to go, making sure the district is receiving its "return on investment."

Which educational programs are working?

A "crippling" lack of tracking is in place to answer that question across the district, Gibson said.

Overall, programs aren't working. District students are underperforming in nearly every aspect when compared with three similar districts: Houston Independent School District in Texas; Broward County Public Schools in Florida; and Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida.

And the district can't blame its high proportion of poor students, who are more likely to score low, Jones said. The three similar districts outperformed Clark County despite having enrollments in which an average of 60 percent of students are poor, noticeably higher than Clark County's 44 percent.

No more excuses, said Jones, who also wants to improve the district's student-to-teacher ratio.

The district has 31 percent fewer teachers relative to the number of students than the national average. It has 20 percent fewer teachers when compared with the three similar school districts.

That's why the School Board hired Jones, School Board President Carolyn Edwards said. It wants change.

"This study moves us in the right direction," she said.

Next will come implementation, Jones said.

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@review journal.com or 702-383-0279.