Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A conversation the city ought to have


Maybe this isn't the best time to talk about privatizing government services.

It's been a long-standing conservative view that government at any level is wasteful, bloated and corrupt. Partly because that's often true, it helped lead to a lot of Republican electoral success. "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," or so said Ronald Reagan.

But the country got an eight-year look at what the privatization and outsourcing of core government functions did for us. Highlighted by the disgrace that was the response to Hurricane Katrina, where we sat back and watched a city drown, many decided we really do need government for some things.

Barack Obama was elected last year for any number of reasons. On that list was the repudiation of the anti-government mantra the country labored under for the past few decades. Voters knew he supported expanded governmental authority in areas like health care and the environment, and he won anyway.

He won big in Connecticut, and he won huge in Bridgeport. Now, that same public-vs.-private-sector debate may come here.

The discussion is around a thoroughly laudable move spearheaded by the Bridgeport Regional Business Council to improve financial accountability in the city school system. Regardless of its outcome, it's an unqualified good idea to get a clearer picture of where the millions of dollars spent on education in this city go, and how they can be better used.

In other systems where such an audit has been successful -- St. Louis, for example -- millions of dollars in savings was unearthed, and that money went back into the classroom, where it belongs. Better equipment, newer textbooks, help for teachers -- these are what people expect their tax money to go toward.

Some fixes are as easy as clearing up inefficiencies. But other proposals go to the heart of a controversial question about what exactly we expect from our city schools.

As outlined by Paul Timpanelli, the head of the BRBC who has for years worked doggedly on this project, some of the savings are likely to include moving jobs out of the school board's direct control and into the private sector. Crossing guards, cafeteria workers and anyone not directly involved in student instruction could, the thinking goes, come cheaper if they were not paid with public funds. The savings could total in the millions.

The question, then, is what are the core functions of a school system: We're asking whether jobs not directly related to teaching should be performed by for-profit businesses, which, whatever else they do, exist to make money, not to serve the public.

If profit is the underlying goal, people fear, sometimes other goals suffer. In this case, that could mean safety, or nutrition.

It wouldn't have to work that way, of course. Private operators are no more certain to do a bad job than public workers are guaranteed to have nothing but the best interests of the children at heart. It's all shades of gray. But given the country's experience with privatization's negative effects, it's no wonder some people are leery.

Then there's the matter of Bridgeport as compared with its neighbors. Maybe providing meals is not a core educational function in the suburbs. In the city, where 84 percent of students in the public system qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch programs (as of 2005), the calculus is different.

No one, of course, is favoring doing away with school lunch or crossing guards or anything else. And there's no question the audit is a good idea; taxpayers need to know where money is going.
But if some of the possible recommendations give people pause, they should. This is a conversation the city ought to have.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at hbailey@ctpost.com.

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