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Say Yes to Our Children, No to Privatization

There is an ever-present injustice in the kitchens and halls of our public schools. The injustice is called outsourcing and ARAMARK and ServiceMaster are two of its most heinous purveyors.

ARAMARK and ServiceMaster both began their respective contracts with Houston Independent School District (HISD) under Dr. Rod Paige's Superintendence. ARAMARK was brought in to manage the Food Service Department and ServiceMaster, the Custodial and Maintenance departments of HISD. The two outsourcing agencies both have a long history of inequitable treatment of workers and fiscally unsound managerial practices. They have not made their endeavor in HISD an exception to this tradition.

ARAMARK has severely cut our kitchen staff all over HISD and substitute kitchen staff has been eliminated almost completely. When one of the food service attendants is sick, the rest of the employees are forced to make up the work, without getting extra pay. Furthermore, many formerly full-time employees have been cut to four hours a day. Four hours is not enough to support one person, much less a single mother with three children. Do you want your tax dollars spent on paying people so little that they are forced to work two jobs?

They have also affected the quality and quantity of the food that your children eat. Before ARAMARK was in place in HISD, the children were served a whole apple as part of their lunch; they are now served only half of one. Prior to ARAMARK, they were served the whole head of broccoli, now only the stems. Before ARAMARK they were served a variety of entrees, including many that were prepared and cooked in the school kitchen. Now most of the food comes pre-prepared and suffers from comparatively poor quality. Because of the diminished quality of the food, participation in school lunches has decreased and-to combat this dwindling participation-many schools have begun serving both pizza and hamburgers twice a week. Wouldn't you like for your children to be offered a variety of quality foods?

They have also begun a program in many low-income schools where the children, most of whom are on free lunch (their meals are funded by the federal government), are served breakfast during class time. Before this program and at other schools the children that want breakfast at school are served before class. At these schools, the children are served in class regardless of whether or not they want the food. The food that is not eaten is thrown away and the district pays ARAMARK whether they eat it or not. This is a flagrant example of a private institution manipulating the system for their profits.

To make matters worse, because the children are served breakfast during class time, time is being taken away from their studies. As stated before, this program is being introduced in schools that have a high ratio of low-income students, those schools that have historically tested lowest in academic performance. Therefore, the students that should be getting more class time are getting less.

Another example of privatization within our schools is the appearance of progressively more vending machines on campus. Some schools even have them in the cafeterias, which is a violation of a regulation set forth by the Federal Department of Agriculture. The children purchase soft drinks or junk food in lieu of healthier alternatives, and again our children's health is sacrificed in the name of corporate profits. The ubiquitous logos on the machines also help to ensure that the new generation will continue to buy their products.

ServiceMaster has engaged in their share of inequities, as well. During the last school year, the custodial and maintenance departments, both managed by ServiceMaster, lost a total of $2.8 million; to offset the loss, they laid off many custodians and maintenance workers alike. Instead of rehiring the devoted employees when more staff was needed for new schools and projects, they brought in outside contractors to fill the positions. Among these contractors is Aztec, who was brought in to fill the custodian positions at two new High Schools, West Side and Cesar Chavez. The district looked past Aztec's policy of not giving their employees a full forty-hour workweek so as to avoid paying health care. Some might find irony in that this inequitable treatment is going on in a school named after Chavez, a union leader and staunch advocate of worker's rights.

ServiceMaster has also taken the responsibility of changing the air conditioner filters away from the maintenance department and given it to the custodial department. Changing the air filters in a large school is a somewhat labor-intensive job and, because the custodians already have a full workload, the task is postponed or, in some cases, never taken care of. Houston has one of the highest rates of asthma in the country and it seems that ServiceMaster is trying to make sure that it stays that way. Not only is this an inequity against the school employees, but this is also a case of profits taking precedence over our children's health.

It is also relevant to point out that neither ARAMARK nor ServiceMaster has fulfilled what they were employed to do. Their respective contracts were first begun as a means to improve the financial status of the district; their contracts were not begun to correct an existing problem. HISD handled these matters internally without any problems before they began outsourcing. As a result of poor budget management, ARAMARK cost HISD $4.5 million over the past two school years and, as mentioned earlier, ServiceMaster cost the district $2.8 million over the past year. Despite the treatment of workers, ARAMARK and ServiceMaster are quite obviously inept in what they were employed to do.

The contracts with ARAMARK and ServiceMaster were begun in 1997 and 1998, respectively. While they are both five-year contracts, they must be renewed yearly, as stipulated by state law. HISD Board Members, who are elected officials, will vote for the renewal or revocation of the contracts. Because of this, we have the ability to discontinue their contracts before the new school year starting in the Fall.

Both ARAMARK and ServiceMaster's contracts were begun with Houston ISD under the administration of Dr. Rod Paige. He has since left his position as HISD Superintendent, to serve as the Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, and we feel that his legacy of inequity should leave as well.

Both of these corporate menaces have a long track record of inequitable treatment of employees, putting profits before people, and incompetence in budget management. As voting citizens of the city of Houston we CAN make a difference. Send a letter to your Board Member and tell him/her that the contracts with ARAMARK and ServiceMaster must be discontinued. Tell them that the problems of outsourcing far outweigh the benefits. Tell them that you refuse to vote for a Board Member that supports outsourcing. Tell them that you don't want your tax dollars supporting a corporation that thrives on the oppression of the people working in our schools. The practice of using public money for private profit is unacceptable and must be stopped!

Contact information for the Board Members as well as a map separating the members into districts is available at http://www.houstonisd.org/board. If you would like to join us in the fight against injustice, call us at 713-863-9877or email us at seiu100txho@acorn.org