SPS outsourcing bid voted down

Published 10:34 pm Thursday, December 12, 2013

School Board member Linda Bouchard on Friday slammed opponents of exploring outsourcing for using race to defeat her bid.

“They turned that (the meeting) into a circus by trying to make us out to be racist,” Bouchard said Friday.

A majority formed by Judith Brooks-Buck, Lorraine Skeeter, Diane Foster and Vice-Chairman Enoch Copeland “end(ed) discussion of outsourcing at this time” — the motion put forth by Brooks-Buck, the board’s staunchest opponent of outsourcing since Bouchard first proposed the exploration in September.

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Bouchard, Phyllis Byrum and Chairman Michael Debranski would have preferred the bid moved forward, possibly by requesting proposals from companies for providing the district’s custodial and maintenance services. Bouchard had hoped the potential savings from privatization could fund a 5-percent raise for teaching staff.

While explicitly absent from earlier board discussions, race was introduced Thursday when public speaker Therbia Parker Sr., a Suffolk businessman and collector of African-American artifacts, including from the slavery period, referenced Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis the night before his assassination.

“My mind went back” to that episode in history upon hearing of the outsourcing proposal, he said.

“Would you want them standing in line to get unemployment checks?” Parker said.

“We need to take into consideration that this is not a dollar-sign consideration. This is a decision that should be made from the heart. Put it (exploring outsourcing) in the garbage so our custodians can put it in the dumpster and our sanitation workers can carry it to the dump where it belongs.”

Board members discussed the question after Susan Redmon, the district’s purchasing manager, presented information earlier requested by the School Board, including the cost of in-house custodial services: $4.54 million this school year.

Brooks-Buck noted more of Redmon’s findings: “At least 94 percent, or close to, are African-American. Over 80 percent invested in the VRS (the state’s retirement benefits system). Over 80 percent live in Suffolk.”

Copeland read a prepared statement, concluding that outsourcing “will have a devastating effect primarily on black workers in our school system.”

Before flipping her earlier stance and voting not to explore outsourcing, Foster said “there was no racial motivation” by its earlier supporters.

“After listening to some of the people tonight, we maybe can find another area to save money; but in my good conscience, I do think the school system is a family. For me, tonight, I’m not going to support it,” she said, receiving a standing ovation from a few custodians and a maintenance worker attending the meeting.

Skeeter said she did not support “starting at the bottom” to save money.

Byrum and Debranski both spoke in favor of the exploration.

“We have a responsibility to look at all options,” Debranski said.

Bouchard said Friday she does not plan to let the issue go.

“I have to fall back and regroup,” she said.

Custodians are now under increased scrutiny to ensure facilities are clean, she said, adding that the School Board may have missed an opportunity, even if it discovered outsourcing was not a good fit, to introduce new policies to ensure janitors are doing their jobs properly.