The Key to Fighting Privatization? Preparation

Spring is usually the season when private contractors across the nation seem to crawl out of the woodwork seeking public school contracts. Why? Easy prey.

Privateers know school board members are desperately trying to balance budgets for the upcoming school year. And nothing is easier for cash-strapped trustees needing to strike a zero balance before summer vacation than outsourcing the jobs of education support professionals (ESPs).

While spring is the high season for privateers to court vulnerable board members, the time for local Associations to prepare arguments and mobilize members against outsourcing is … always.

“The sooner you realize your school board is considering privatization, the better prepared you can be to fight it,” says Scott Wagner, a teacher for 32 years and president of Clearview Education Association (CEA) in New Jersey. “You need to stay ready.”

Wagner knows what he is talking about. CEA is a merged local with 330 members, including about 100 ESPs whose current contract runs through June 30, 2015. Yet, on March 20, with 15 months remaining on the contract, Superintendent John Horchak of the Clearview Regional School District sent 13 custodians an e-mail at 2:00 p.m. instructing them to gather in the library in 30 minutes.

“He told us our jobs might be privatized,” says Mike Larmond, a custodian for more than 20 years who is fondly known to students as “Mister Mike.”

“I was so broken up when I heard the news,” he says. “I love getting up in the morning and going to work. I want to give my retirement speech at Clearview, not somewhere else.”

Larmond says he lost his appetite and much sleep after the announcement that Thursday afternoon. But Horchak wasn’t finished. The next day he delivered the same message in the same way to 17 paraeducators.

“I didn’t see that one coming,” says Diane D’Agostini, a Clearview paraeducator for 18 years and whose four children graduated from Clearview Regional High School. “It was on my mind 24/7. I couldn’t sleep a wink.”

Within a week, Horchak began advertising bids for the ESP jobs.

“Our people were told they could probably have a job with the private company, but for probably less pay, fewer hours, and no benefits,” Wagner says. “I don’t think any of the ESPs were going to apply for those jobs.”

Soon after the March meetings, CEA launched an anti-privatization campaign with support from members, parents, students and the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).

“We were able to act fast with the help of NJEA,” D’Agostini says. “They met with us and gave us ideas and attended board meetings.”

One of those ideas included D’Agostini working with an art teacher to create 8 X 10 cardboard certificates printed in the school colors of green and gold. The 30 certificates were not for framing. Long green ribbons were threaded in punched holes in the top corners of each certificate creating miniature billboards that members could sport at board meetings.

The certificates read: Proud to be a Clearview employee for _____ number of years. The number was filled in per ESP as well as blown up using enormous block glittery figures which shimmered in the light.

“Those numbers stood out in a crowd and most were double digits,” says D’Agostini.

“We bleed green and gold and have always been proud supporters of our schools.”

CEA also created 250 lawn signs in green and gold announcing the campaign’s theme: No Strangers in Our Clearview Schools. The signs also advertised CEA’s Web address.

Trustees eventually decided at an April 24 board meeting not to privatize paraeducators. One indication of CEA support occurred at the meeting when more than 200 CEA members, parents, and students showed up. Officials were forced to relocate the meeting from the library to the school auditorium.

“It would have been a fire code violation to stay in the library,” Larmond says. “Everybody came to our board meetings, even ESPs and teachers from other districts. Nobody wants strangers in their school.”

On May 7, board members also withdrew their proposal to subcontract custodial services.

“It was announced in the middle of a three-hour budget meeting,” says Wagner, who was prepared to challenge the proposal at the meeting but instead took the podium and thanked the board for withdrawing it. “People gave the announcement a standing ovation.”

A half-hearted, last-minute threat involving bus drivers didn’t fly and the board found themselves back to square one.

“We might have lost valuable partners who the students know and trust,” Wagner says. “They have given their lives to the school, just like any teacher or administrator.”

While CEA was able to thwart the threat of privatization within 50 days of the board’s initial announcement, it has only protected its members through the 2014-15 budget. Wagner says they are remaining vigilant as the district prepares the 2015-16 budget.