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In Fight Against Outsourcing, Flipping a School Board Makes All the Difference

The brash board member seemed pleased with himself after announcing at a Pennsbury School District board meeting in Pennsylvania that he intended to “outsource all bus driver jobs and break PESPA at any cost,” recalls Donna Abrescia, a Pennsbury school bus driver and member of the Pennsbury Education Support Professionals Association (PESPA).

“When he said, ‘at any cost’ … that got me,” says Abrescia, who has worked for the district for 26 years. “It didn’t matter if our drivers were more efficient than those from a private company or if having in-house drivers was more cost effective for the district … no, he wanted to take our jobs and break our union.”

The grandiose pronouncement was made by avowed anti-union trustee Simon Campbell in late 2012. At the time, he and four other conservative trustees ruled the nine-member board with an iron fist. Together, they had proposed selling the district’s school bus fleet and outsourcing transportation services as well as other education support professional (ESP) jobs.

“Back then, we had a school board that was not educator friendly,” says PESPA President Marla Lipkin, an administrative assistant.

As in Pennsbury, school boards across the nation sometimes turn to outsourcing as an ill-considered effort to raise quick cash, shore up budget gaps, or streamline operations. Whether they call it privatization, contracting out, subcontracting or outsourcing — transferring the work of public school employees to the private sector leads to inferior services and fewer connections to students and their education.

In Pennsbury, however, some board members took the pernicious threat of outsourcing even further. For them, privatization was less a fiduciary strategy and more a means to weaken PESPA.

Battling the Board on Two Fronts

By 2013, the board moved fast and loose distributing Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to subcontractors and accepting bids for transportation and custodial services, information technology specialists, instructional and non-instructional paraprofessionals. Employees from each of these groups were among PESPA’s 625 members, including 175 bus drivers.

“The board made it clear they wanted to bust the union,” Lipkin says. “No budgetary or financial constraints, poor performances or community complaints were cited.”

The board had a history of being hostile to unions. Previously, their union-busting agenda included the teacher-led Pennsbury Education Association (PEA).

“Since teachers couldn’t be threatened with outsourcing, ESPs became the target,” Lipkin says.

Along with the battle against outsourcing on the administrative front, PESPA negotiators were simultaneously bargaining a new contract with district officials. PESPA had been working under the terms of an expired contract since June 2011. Under these circumstances, members found themselves at risk of losing or compromising not only future jobs but their present positions.

“The board was throwing out RFPs for everything to see what might stick,” Lipkin says. “Even though no analytical evidence was being provided to support their argument for any RFPs.”

Finding New Players

By this time, PESPA members had begun to organize internally, form committees, and develop a strategy to fight the privatization threat. At the top of their to-do list: Identify and support community-minded, educator-friendly board members for the upcoming November 2013 board elections.

With months to go before the election, PESPA members worked evenings and weekends canvassing neighborhoods with flyers about the detriments of outsourcing school jobs. They created radio commercials that played during high school football games and on social media, sponsored information tables at school events, and purchased yellow yard signs with a website address and capitalized black letters that read: STOP PENNSBURY FROM OUTSOURCING.

“We did whatever we felt was necessary to show our community what a mistake it would be to let strangers transport our students,” Lipkin says.

Garnering Community Support

One concerned citizen who empathized with their plight was the inimitable Frank Arcoleo.

“I’m driving along and I see this yellow sign in someone’s yard about outsourcing,” says Arcoleo, a self-employed certified public accountant. “It got my attention, so I contacted the group.”

Marla Lipkin

Marla Lipkin

The encounter with the sign took place in November 2012. Before long, Arcoleo was testifying against privatization at board meetings, hosting weekly PESPA organizing meetings at his house, and crunching numbers which blew holes in district reports regarding reduced costs through outsourcing. He and other citizens also established a nonprofit advocacy group, United Pennsbury. Among other activities, the group presented the board with a petition with about 1,250 signatures from Republicans and Democrats alike who opposed privatizing school services.

“I don’t like to pay more money than I should for government services,” says Arcoleo, whose daughter, Emily, attends public schools. “But paying taxes for legitimate well-performed services is not only necessary, it’s patriotic.”

Of all his activities, Arcoleo might be best remembered for numerous appearances at board meetings where he would dispute perceived “phantom savings,” as he called them.

For example, school board solicitor Jeff Sultanik estimated that the sale of the bus fleet, equipment listing and inventory listing would be $3,987,285, or $797,457 per year covering transportation cost for five years.

“But what about year six and every year after that,” Arcoleo says. At a February board meeting, with one of his meticulous spreadsheets in hand, Arcoleo articulated the illusion behind the selling of school buses by using an analogy of a family selling their house and using the proceeds to pay rent.

“After a time, you’ve spent everything you received for the house, but you still need to pay rent – forever,” he told the board. “It’s clearly an accounting mistake to act as if the proceeds of an asset sale can legitimately be counted to offset increased operating costs.”

In addition, he told the board, outsourcing district jobs to out-of-town companies “would ruin the lives of our neighbors who would lose their jobs or, at best, have jobs with lower salaries, no health care, no retirement savings. I told the board they should be ashamed of themselves.”

Outsourcing Threat Lurks Over 2013 Contract

In August 2013, the board voted 6-2 (1 abstaining) to approve a new contract which had been already been approved by PESPA members in mid-August. The agreement was valid through June of this year.

Under the contract, PESPA compromised on several points, including higher health care co-payments and dependents being dropped from PESPA member plans. The contract did not include language restricting the district from using subcontractors. This would change with PESPA’s 2017 contract.

“With the two major outsourcing threats looming over us at the time, we knew we had to give up benefits to keep all of our classifications employed, so we did for the time being,” Lipkin says. “Everybody told me that once you give something up, you never get it back … well, we got things back (in the 2017 contract).”

In the months that followed the contract signing, momentum had shifted in favor of PESPA and against the conservative members of the board, which is comprised of three members from three regions. In Region 1, two of the three members were up for re-election, including Campbell. Region 2 included three educator-friendly members, all returning. In Region 3, two members were running for re-election. In Pennsbury, where trustees serve four-year terms, elections involving board seats are staggered.

At the polls that November, PESPA needed at least two of the four candidates they endorsed to win their races in order to achieve a majority.

“We ended up winning all four available seats, which together with our other allies on the board (not up for re-election) gave us the majority,” Arcoleo says. “Community advocacy won the day.”

2017 Contract Addresses Outsourcing

In June, the board approved a five-year contract stating that the district will “not engage in any further subcontracting of Bargaining Unit work, unless there are no reasonably available qualified individuals to fill the position” and other similar provisions.

The contract also includes a yearly 1 percent pay increase and column and longevity movement. Members can also apply for a new health care plan starting in October. At first, the plan has higher co-pays for specialists and higher out of pocket maximums, but over five years members will pay the same family health care contribution rate as teachers — 14 percent.

“During the last contract, we lost good support staff employees because they could not afford to work and pay for their health care benefits,” Lipkin says.

The new contract also restores coverage for dependents, includes bereavement language, increases sick leave days for part-time employees, and contains a differential rate for paraeducators working with emotional-support students.

“We worked for five years to regain respect and benefits that we, as essential school employees, deserve,” Lipkin says.

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