Updated: Wednesday, 15 Dec 2010, 6:32 PM EST
Published : Wednesday, 15 Dec 2010, 10:16 AM EST
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - The legal arm of free-market think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy plans to take 10 Kent County school districts, their school boards and their unions to court on behalf of five taxpayers, alleging the school systems broke the law by agreeing not to privatize services.
The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation planned to file the suit Wednesday in Kent County Circuit Court. Five county taxpayers recruited by the center are the plaintiffs.
"This isn't that we're asking for something special," legal foundation director Patrick Wright said. "We're just asking for the districts and the unions to follow the law as it's currently written. It couldn't be more clear."
State law prohibits school systems from "bargaining away their right to privatize non-instructional services," he said.
The Mackinac Center argues schools should bring in outside firms to run school busing, food service and custodial services. It saves districts -- and taxpayers -- money, the center contends.
The planned suit challenges language in the contracts of the Kent Intermediate School District and the Byron Center, Comstock Park, Godfrey-Lee, Godwin Heights, Kenowa Hills, Lowell, Northview and Rockford districts. Those contracts include an agreement not to privatize unionized services.
There is no criminal action or violation of the school code in the contracts, Kent ISD Assistant Superintendent Coni Sullivan told 24 Hour News 8.
And "the school districts that are part of this agreement hadn't planned, during the course of this year, to privatize anyway," Kent ISD Superintendent Kevin Konarska said. "If they changed their mind because of circumstance, they could have, because it's (the privatization clause in the contract) not enforceable."
The language was included to acknowledge sacrifices made by staff, including teachers contributing toward the cost of their health care.
The contract saved Rockford Public Schools about $560,000 in just one year, Superintendent Michael Shibler told 24 Hour News 8. Northview Public Schools saved about $276,000, Superintendent Mike Paskewicz said.
Savings are in the hundreds of thousands for Kent ISD, as well, Konarska said.
"To be honest, I would think that [the Mackinac Center] would be applauding our efforts," the Kent ISD superintendent said. "Instead of having 10 of our districts negotiate individual contracts and all the dollars and time that it takes, we were able to do this collaboratively, which saved dollars for everybody."
The Kent County Education Association stands by its contracts, sees the lawsuit as baseless and hopes a judge will dismiss it, a representative said.
When asked by 24 Hour News 8 whether he was concerned about the legal costs the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation's actions could present to school systems, Wright noted that districts and unions could simply drop the language from their contracts to avoid the suit.
And the savings that could come from privatization would far outweigh any court costs, the legal foundation director said.
Mackinac Center analysts said the 10 districts could save a total of $6.9 million in the first year by privatizing all busing, food service and custodial services that are not already private.
Administrators with Grand Rapids Public Schools -- which is not a subject of the lawsuit -- have said they saved millions by outsourcing busing services to Dean Transportation.
But in Rockford, Shibler said since dropping an outside food company, the district's food service has improved and the food service budget has gone from running a deficit to an $80,000 surplus.
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