In an effort to get better-maintained schools at a lower cost and reduce a long list of needed repairs, the Harford County school board is looking at private management companies to improve the school system's facilities and construction departments.
The board is paying Servicemaster, a Chicago management firm, nearly $15,000 to study the departments and to offer suggestions on improving management. Servicemaster, which provides everything from custodians to facilities managers in hospitals and schools, is expected to present its findings to the board in the next few months.
Last week, Johnson Controls Inc., credited with cleaning dirt and graffiti from 12 schools in Baltimore run by Education Alternatives Inc., made a formal presentation to the Harford board.
Johnson Controls, which said it could save the county up to $1.8 million a year through better equipment and management, lost out to Servicemaster for the study, but wanted to offer ideas for improving maintenance, said school system spokesman Donald R. Morrison.
Such ideas still are in the talking stages.
Although Servicemaster is being paid for its study, the board has not hired the company or even called for bids for taking over facilities and construction management.
But Harford school custodians, electricians and other maintenance workers who heard the Johnson Controls pitch at last week's board meeting worry that a private company will oust them in favor of privately contracted workers.
"We were concerned with whether it was going to be a complete takeover and whether we were going to lose our jobs," said Sara Simons, a custodian at Norrisville Elementary School.
Board members insist that job losses are not likely.
"We're looking for consultants to help us become more efficient in energy and maintenance -- not to replace our employees, but to augment their expertise," said board President Ronald R. Eaton. "More efficient means to me fixing the roofs before they leak, preventive maintenance, not reactive maintenance."
The search for a supervisor and assistant supervisor for the facilities department -- positions left vacant by retirements in December -- is on hold while the board looks into private management companies.
With those vacancies, now is the perfect time to look at alternatives in managing the facilities department and its relationship to the construction department, said board Vice President Anne H. Ober.
"There has been no action taken to move toward privatization, but the board is listening and willing to look at ideas," Mrs. Ober said. "This is not a reflection on existing staff performance."
Even officials of Johnson Controls say Harford County's schools generally are clean and well-maintained.
"Out of all the schools I go to, their schools look pretty good," said William F. Buchman III, an account executive. "They've got a good custodial program."
But the facilities department simply does not have enough employees to do adequate preventive maintenance in schools and can just keep up with "breakdown" maintenance, said John Cavanaugh, who presented Johnson Controls' analysis to the board.
The company would "supplement" the school system's maintenance workers with specialized workers.
"We tackle a building, go in and fix everything that needs to be fixed and pay for those [improvements] with the energy savings," Mr. Cavanaugh said.
Johnson could save the school system $900,000 to $1.8 million a year with more efficient equipment and maintenance, Mr. Cavanaugh estimated.
Still, the possibility of private companies taking over some of the school system's maintenance and repair duties, even on a contract basis, makes some county workers nervous.
Custodians and other maintenance workers who attended the board meeting Monday were not reassured by Mrs. Ober's statements that there are no plans to replace maintenance workers "at this point."
"We just hope that that's what they mean," said Ms. Simons, the Norrisville custodian.
Don Jones, an electrician for the school system, said inadequate funding is as much a problem as the need for better management.
"We are continually bogged down because we can only do so much because of funding," he said.
But a private management firm would help the school system spend its money more wisely, said Mr. Eaton, especially when budgets are tight.
"This is an issue we need to look at rather closely," said Andre Fournier, president of the Harford County Council of PTAs. "Funding for maintenance is always a problem."
Mr. Fournier cited problems that resulted from the delay in fixing a leaky roof and heating and cooling units at Riverside Elementary School.
After rejecting renovation funds for the school for four years, the state and county had to find emergency money to fix the roof and other problems in February when parents picketed the school and kept their children at home for fear of gas leaking from a faulty heating system.