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Get local government out of the facilities management business

Sunday's Advocate brings news that ABM Industries, the facilities management company for the city's schools, has been given the pink slip (well, technically, their contract has not been renewed). In ABM's place, is the confusing and similarly-named AMG (standing for "Asset Management Group"), consisting of four city officials who are also members of the Mold Task Force. The AMG will oversee the hiring of five facilities managers, each in turn responsible for about five schools, with help from city union labor.

No tears should be shed for ABM. But I am skeptical this new model will produce the results the district desires, for the same reason the old model failed: No one is on the hook financially if poor facilities management lead to another mold-like crisis. Or, put differently, the taxpayers are on the hook, and have essentially no means by which to exercise oversight over their financial liability.

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Walk through the following thought experiment with me: The year is 2030. Mold is discovered in our city's public schools. Who pays to fix it?

1) The members of the AMG? No.

2) The Board of Education? No. In all likelihood, few if any of the current members--i.e., the ones who blessed this arrangement--will be on the Board of Ed to even be held electorally responsible. Jackie Heftman (D) is the only current member (as I understand) of the Board of Ed who was also serving in the late 2000s when the original report on the mold issues was released.

3) Superintendent Tamu Lucero? Unless she's still the superintendent in 2030 (an unlikely outcome given the recent turnover at the position), no.

4) The five facilities managers, who will be in charge of various public schools? Perhaps they will pay with their jobs. But again, it is unlikely all or even some of them will be around in 2030 to deal with the consequences of decisions made in 2019. And they certainly won't be financially responsible. So still, the answer is no.

5) The taxpayers? Yes, the taxpayers will be ultimately responsible for poor management of the city's facilities.

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The American consensus since (at least?) the early 1900s is that government is responsible for the public education of our children. However, it doesn't follow, therefore, that government must own and operate school buildings as well.

[Digression alert: skip ahead past the brackets if so included.

More generally, the distinction between "Government should provide for its citizens to have access to X goods or services," versus "Government should directly provide, as a business would, X goods or services," should not be forgotten.

I recall a conversation between Mary Lou Rinaldi (D) and Sal Gabriele (R) during a recent Board of Finance meeting, where the Board was debating whether or not to provide funding for (what I understood to be) a city run summer camp for low-income youth. The program--which was projected to be revenue neutral--had come in over-budget, and would cost the taxpayers money moving forward despite promises to the contrary.

During the debate, Rinaldi stated "I continue to ask myself, 'What should local government be in the business of doing?'" Gabriele, later in the discussion, noted that given the low dollar amount involved, and low-income youth benefited, he was not going to raise a fuss about an extra (I believe) mid-five figures going to the program (as an aside, these comments earned him many surprised looks from his colleagues on the Board, some of whom teased if he'd been drinking "Democrat water.").

Even assuming you agree with Gabriele that money is well-spent on summer programming for low-incoming youth, it doesn't follow that the city should then open up a summer camp and run it as a business would. Subsidies for private sector summer programming could potentially work just as well.]

None of the above individuals or groups are bad actors. But the incentive structure just isn't there to ensure that we are good stewards of the city's public school assets. More generally, the following principle is almost always true: capital is less efficiently allocated by government politicians and bureaucrats than by market actors.

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I can think of two possible solutions to fix the incentive problem that exists in maintaining our city's schools.

1) Sell our public school buildings to private parties, and then rent back the space. This way, if the private owner doesn't maintain a building to our satisfaction, we can move the school elsewhere. If the Silicon Harbor building now home to the Westover School falls into disrepair before the next lease renewal, there is little doubt the city would look to move the school elsewhere.

2) More realistically (since I agree there would be myriad of problems with selling the city's school buildings), we could bid out the maintenance of our city's buildings to independent companies, and require them to have insurance, such that, if the mold crisis repeats itself, those companies and their insurers are on the hook for remediating the problem.

If you're wondering "isn't that what ABM was supposed to be doing?", the answer is not quite. While ABM was a private company, all it did was coordinate the maintenance of the school buildings using city (i.e., union) labor, which was ultimately responsible for doing the actual maintenance work.

Unfortunately, as I understand the status quo, inflexibility in our city's labor agreements with public sector unions prevents the city from using non-union labor to maintain the schools. Labor inflexibility is a recurring issue in our local government, a view shared by members of both parties (just offhand, I remember comments in various forums by Mayor Martin, Rep. Eric Morson (D-13), and Rep. Bradley Michelson (R-1) expressing frustration with how our CBAs with the public sector unions frustrate the city's ability to provide services to Stamford's residents). So perhaps nothing can be done. All we can hope for then is that the AMG is merely a stopgap, and that the city can implement a more fulsome solution at a future point in time.