Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Seeking CMS savings

In its 15-minute meeting Monday night, the school board announced the members of a new advisory committee to explore whether taxpayers can save money by letting private companies take over some of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' business.

If you've been around awhile, you've seen similar studies done by consultants or volunteer panels. The perennial hope is that outsourcing non-educational work such as running buses, feeding kids or maintaining buildings will free tax dollars for schools (or perhaps grant property owners some relief). So far those studies have found no big savings waiting to be plucked, in part because all school business comes with a tangle of government rules and requirements.

Back when new schools were sprouting like dandelions, "lend-lease" public-private partnerships promised big savings on construction. The idea was that a private contractor could build schools cheaper and lease them back to CMS. The district spent about $2 million researching and negotiating such a contract with an Atlanta developer to build one school and renovate three others. CMS pulled the plug in 2008 after concluding it would actually cost more. The challenge: When they're doing public work, private builders are bound by the same bidding requirements and other regs that push up costs for government construction. Plus, of course, they still need to turn a profit.

This time last year, there was a lot of talk about saving money by merging CMS, county and/or city functions such as building maintenance, human resources and communications. Staffers were charged with researching those options, and little has been heard since.

On Monday, CMS Chief Operating Officer Hugh Hattabaugh said visions of merging big CMS and Mecklenburg County functions, such as HR, ran aground because they have different "platforms" for computerized record-keeping. Neither body wanted the expense and upheaval of converting (and from what I can tell, much of CMS' system is driven by state requirements, in an effort to have consistent student records and academic data).

Hattabaugh said there's still some talk of the city of Charlotte and CMS merging vehicle maintenance -- not the bus fleet, but about 300 other cars and trucks used by CMS staff. And he said CMS is working on a contract to hand over maintenance of four administrative buildings to a private service at a savings of more than $100,000 a year -- not big bucks in a $1 billion budget, but a couple of teachers salaries.

So, will the new volunteer crew map a path to significant cost-cutting? One can always hope. Savings large or small will surely be as welcome in 2012-13 as they would have been this year.

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