Baby steps on the School Board

Published 10:05 pm Friday, October 18, 2013

Moving at a nearly glacial pace, the Suffolk School Board is, at least, moving forward with a request to investigate the potential benefits of outsourcing maintenance and custodial services. Following a discussion earlier this month that revealed a board with divergent preconceptions about the idea, School Superintendent Deran Whitney volunteered to examine the ways outsourcing could be explored for a report to be presented during the board’s next meeting.

To be clear, Whitney will study how to study the idea of outsourcing, and School Board members are then expected to vote whether to move forward with an actual study of the matter.

Though admittedly a small one, it’s at least a step toward a realistic assessment of how private enterprise might help the Suffolk Public Schools system operate more efficiently, thereby saving taxpayers money and increasing the amount of money available to use for things that actually improve the state of the city’s public education.

Email newsletter signup

Considering how vehemently at least two of the School Board members oppose even the very discussion of the school system partnering with private enterprise, small steps might be the best folks in Suffolk can expect. Judith Brooks-Buck and Enoch Copeland would like the stop the discussion in its tracks. Their objections are instructive regarding their perceptions of free enterprise in America.

Brooks-Buck said she is opposed to the School Board considering outsourcing because of a bad experience with independent contractors hired to perform custodial duties at Virginia State University, where she is a professor. She told fellow board members she often finds herself cleaning up after the private workers have already passed through her areas.

For his part, Copeland said he is concerned that a private company taking over the custodial or maintenance duties in the school system would take away jobs from low-income school employees. “I’m just not in favor of going to the private sector in dealing with school matters at this time,” he said.

Both School Board members’ comments reveal foundational misunderstandings of free enterprise and the role of government in American society.

Most folks recognize, for instance, that there are good employees and bad employees in both government service and private industry. Some companies have better track records of service than others, and — except in the case of hard, low-bid contracts — the former companies usually thrive, while the latter starve.

Most folks also recognize government agencies do not exist to create jobs for the sake of redistributing wealth from one group of taxpayers to another. Government jobs should always be in service of taxpayers — and the first service they should provide is to spend taxpayers’ money as efficiently and responsibly as possible.

Brooks-Buck and Copeland are entitled to a different understanding of both those points. But their perspectives speak volumes about the performance problems in a school system in which students continue to struggle, while administrators spend a dizzying amount of money taking baby steps toward a decision on whether to evaluate doing a potential study on efficient spending.