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Cash-strapped schools across Michigan are increasingly turning to private companies to manage food, custodial and bus services.

The latest Michigan Privatization Report, a biennial study by the right-wing Mackinac Center for Public Policy, found the number of public schools that now privatize at least one service grew to 35.5 per cent in 2005 from 31 per cent in 2001.

Outsourcing recently spurred outrage in Garden City, MI, where an effort is under way to recall five of the seven Board of Education members who voted last month to outsource custodial and food service jobs.

In Garden City, 29 custodians and four food service workers have already lost their jobs through outsourcing. Although they may find work with the private companies, they will likely be doing the same job for a lower salary and fewer benefits.

Public custodial workers in Garden City made US$17 to $21.67 an hour. Grand Rapids Building Services, which has been hired to manage custodial work, has proposed salaries of $10 to $13 an hour.

A similar effort to recall board members in Lakeview Public Schools in St. Clair Shores failed in May, although one of the recall organizers later won a seat on the board. That board voted in May 2005 to outsource custodial work.

As districts look for ways to provide service more efficiently, more and more districts will look to outsourcing as a viable alternative,” said Timothy Loock, outgoing assistant superintendent for business services at the Avondale School District.

The Garden City Board of Education says it expects to save up to US$2.3 million over the next three years through outsourcing. Lakeview Public Schools claims contracting out saved it $400,000 last year.

Avondale was losing money on its food service program. The first year after the board outsourced to campus food services giant Chartwells, the district made a $15,000 profit. At the end of the 2005-06 school year, profits soared to $50,000. Officials readily admit that the extra cash is made largely on the backs of workers earning abysmal wages with few benefits. Avondale has since outsourced the maintenance of its bus fleet. In June, the board also voted to contract out custodial work

Not surprisingly, unions are fighting this. “Our members are being displaced, losing their jobs, and in some case losing pensions,” said Rosemary Carey, a communications consultant for the Michigan Education Association.

The unions also point out that communities are affected, because the private companies tend to hire from outside the communities and the lower salaries often lead to heavy turnover.

- With files from Detroit Free Press and Knight-Ridder.