Transit expert: $11 billion proposed Maryland highway project “sadly lacking” in transparency

Here’s our weekly analysis of privatization in the news and in communities nationwide. Not a subscriber? Sign up.

This week’s highlights

  • A transit expert says the public-private partnership to widen highways around Washington, D.C., is a bad idea.
  • Charter school advocates are furious at Trump and his education secretary Betsy DeVos.
  • Private prison corporation CoreCivic is eyeing Alabama’s Elmore County land for one of the state’s new prisons.

Education

1) National: In the Public Interest’s Jeremy Mohler points us to a report on “something you’ve likely never heard of [that] might be the biggest education story so far this year. For the past four years, Rand Corp. has studied New York City’s innovative Community Schools Initiative. It found that, in 113 public schools using the ‘community school’ model, attendance improved, graduation rates increased, and more students passed courses and advanced grades on time. What’s a community school, you ask? This video from the Partnership for the Future of Learning goes a long way towards explaining. In short, they’re public schools that partner with local communities to create the conditions students need to thrive.” 

2) NationalCharter school advocates are furious at Trump and his education secretary Betsy DeVos. “On Monday, the Trump administration released its 2021 budget proposal, and there was a gargantuan surprise in the Education Department’s plan for charter school funding. It calls for the effective elimination of the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), which has funded the expansion of charter schools since 1994 to the tune of $3.3 billion. Forty percent of operational charter schools—which are publicly funded but privately operated—were created with money from this program.”

Jan Resseger says “some are speculating that DeVos prefers vouchers, and she is putting all of her effort in the fourth year of this administration into pushing her Education Freedom Scholarship Tuition-Tax-Credit vouchers. I believe, additionally, that public opinion has shifted as the exposure of problems in the charter school sector has made charter schools increasingly difficult to defend.  An organization that may have contributed to a primary shift in public opinion and undermined support for charter schools in Congress is the Network for Public Education (NPE) and it’s dogged executive director and researcher Carol Burris.  There is no reason to believe that Betsy DeVos herself would take NPE seriously, but, thanks to NPE, far fewer people are likely to be sorry that the federal Charter Schools Program seems to be on the chopping block.”

3) National: Jeff Bryant, a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute, explains how corporations are forcing their way into America’s public schools. “In the expanding effort to privatize the nation’s public education system,” he writes, “an ominous, less-understood strain of the movement is the corporate influence in Career and Technical Education (CTE) that is shaping the K-12 curriculum in local communities. An apt case study of the growing corporate influence behind CTE is in Virginia, where many parents, teachers and local officials are worried that major corporations including Amazon, Ford and Cisco—rather than educators and local, democratic governance—are deciding what students learn in local schools.” 

4) National: Michael Bloomberg’s massive commitment of funding for nationwide political campaigning and a ubiquitous media offensive to try to capture the Democratic presidential nomination is drawing attention to his role in promoting education privatization in New York and many other states. Emma Vigeland of TYT and Benjamin Dixon of the Benjamin Dixon Show joined Sam Seder of The Majority Report to discuss Bloomberg’s record. [Audio, beginning at 39:45].

In her new book on the resistance to privatization and the fight to save America’s schools, Diane Ravitch writes, “the billionaires became angry that they had so little presence on social media. To counter the omnipresent bloggers of the Resistance, Disruptors laid out millions of dollars to subsidize blogs to defend charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing, and other tenets of Corporate Disruption. ‘Education Post,’ funded by billionaires Michael Bloomberg, Eli Broad,  the Walton Family Foundation and Lawrence Powell Jobs was launched in 2014 by Peter Cunningham after he stepped down as Arne Duncan’s assistant secretary for communications in the first term of the Obama administration.” (p. 68; see also pp. 34, 36, 46, 102, 125, 169, 173, and 203).

Writing in the Guardian, Bernie Sanders supporters Heather Gautney and Eric Blanc claim “nominating Michael Bloomberg would be a disaster for public schools—and for the Democrats’ chances at beating Donald Trump in 2020. Because when it comes to education policy, it is virtually impossible to tell the two billionaire politicians apart.”

5) Florida: In an editorial, the Gainesville Sun says don’t fund anti-LGBTQ bias with vouchers. “For all the talk of ‘market forces’ and ‘parent power,’ the school choice movement has a dark side. And it is currently on full display. In the wake of an eye-opening investigation by the Orlando Sentinel, state school choice supporters have been forced to face the rank discrimination against LGBTQ students and parents at private, religious schools that receive state-funded scholarships. The response has been fevered. Supporters, including state lawmakers and religious leaders, have attempted to throw up straw men—labeling the Sentinel’s facts as an attack on religious freedom.” 

6) Illinois: McLean County’s largest school district “may wind up sticking with the same school bus company next school year even though the school board, administrators, and parents are far from satisfied with the current provider. The school board will consider extending its multi-million dollar contract with First Student for another year to provide more time to study a consultant’s report about various transportation options. Those options include hiring another bus operator, or the district setting up its own bus system, which could take up to two years, according to School Board President Barry Hitchins. First Student was criticized at the start of this school year for late buses, not having enough drivers, and communication breakdowns.” 

7) New Jersey: The Paterson Education Association is fighting to stop the privatization of Paterson’s instructional assistants. “The Paterson Board of Education is considering a proposal to fire all 700 of the district’s instructional assistants and replace them with strangers. Our public schools must be safe place where our children can grow and thrive under the careful oversight of trusted, vetted and high-quality educators and support professionals. Paterson’s instructional assistants are the fabric of their community, and they deserve better than to be consider an expendable line item in the district’s budget.”

8) Pennsylvania: Susan Spicka, the executive director of Education Voters of PA says it’s time to put a stop to the devastating impact of charter school funding on school districts.  “After more than 20 years, the time has come to retool charter funding to bring payments in line with the costs, eliminate questionable and wasteful spending by charters, and bring property tax increases under control. Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed a funding plan that will do just that: eliminate overpayments and provide $280 million in savings to school districts while providing sufficient funding to allow charter schools to appropriately serve students. Wolf’s proposal should receive the enthusiastic support of Pennsylvania taxpayers and state lawmakers alike.”

9) PennsylvaniaThe Pocono Mountain school district board has voted 7-2 to outsource its bus service. “A very emotional Dawn Cello, President of Pocono Mountain Educational Support Professionals Association (PMESA) broke down in tears at the evening’s school board meeting as she announced that they’d reached a tentative agreement with the district for the support staff after 18 long months. “It wasn’t necessarily what we wanted to happen, but we were backed into a corner and didn’t have a choice other than Option 1 or Option 2,” said Cello. “Option 1 asked all support staff to take a five year pay freeze and pay 30% of our insurance premiums, which would amount to over a full paycheck for employees on the higher end of the scale.” Option 2 allowed PMSD to outsource the transportation department consisting of the remaining 107 bus drivers and 4 mechanics. It also guaranteed a better contract for the rest of the 274 support staff members, such as administrative assistants, maintenance workers, health room nurses, custodians and couriers.”

10) Tennessee: The Madison County Commission will meet tomorrow to vote on whether they will approve the documents for a public-private partnership on the constructions of two new schools. At the end of the budget committee meeting last Tuesday, the members did not come up with an opinion if they should support the partnership or not. Is the deal worth it? The Jackson Sun has reported “a seven-year projection done by [city Finance Director Bobby Arnold] using numbers from a 2018 Piper Jaffray study shows that the city’s $17.7 million in reserve funds would be cut in half if Jackson joins the public-private partnership to build a Madison Academic. 

Without an increase in revenue—whether via taxes, fees or another source — the city can afford to build Madison Academic but risks diminishing its reserve fund that is in place for emergencies.”

Infrastructure

11) NationalThe Federal Transit Administration will establish a competitive grants program for innovation. “AIM will provide $11 million in challenge grants to help transit agencies experiment with new ways of doing business, such as exploring new service models that provide more efficient and frequent service.  FTA will also support outreach to both urban and rural areas to ensure widespread exposure to projects. A Notice of Funding Opportunity for the challenge grants will be published this spring.” Will free transit solutions be considered? 

12) National: Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and o\executive director of the Laramie, Wyoming-based Western Watersheds Project, says Trump’s gutting of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) will cut the public out of public lands decisions. “The Trump administration is stampeding ahead with a rewrite of the regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This landmark law requires federal agencies to study—and let the public weigh in on—the environmental impacts of federal actions. Ironically, given NEPA’s central purpose of including the public in environmental decision-making, the Trump administration is already cutting the public out of its regulatory overhaul.” 

13) National: David Griscom joined Michael Brooks to talk about water privatization, including the formation of a new private water industry PR group to promote water privatization. [Audio, at 49:00; about 6 minutes).

14) Florida: The investigation into efforts by the board of Jacksonville’s public utility to privatize the entity is deepening, and the probe is “expected to delve into the role that the municipal utility’s contract to buy nuclear-generated power from Georgia played in the privatization effort.” The Bond Buyer reports that “the documents and materials uncovered in the investigation will be made public, and the committee plans to establish a process for whistleblowers to provide tips. The power purchase agreement JEA has with MEAG Power wasn’t among the documents requested by the investigative committee, but [City Council Member Rory Diamond] said he anticipates the contract to purchase power from two nuclear reactors under construction at Georgia’s Plant Vogtle will come up as the committee meets in coming weeks. ‘We at least want to discuss that the driver of the need to sell JEA, in part, was related to the uncapped liability related to Plant Vogtle,’ Diamond said in an interview with The Bond Buyer Tuesday.” 

15) Maryland: Writing in Maryland Matters, Ben Ross, chair of Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition and author of “Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism,” spells out why the “public-private partnership” to widen Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway is a bad idea. He says the project’s estimated cost has jumped from $7 billion three years ago to $9 billion. “Transurban’s deeds did not match its words. After announcing its departure from the scene, the company doubled its already lavish spending on lobbying. It had paid the Annapolis lobbying firm of Perry, White, Ross & Jacobson $12,000 per month since late 2017. In the reporting period that started last May, this jumped to $27,000 per month. The Perry, White firm has received a total of $370,000 over two years. This was precisely the juncture at which Transurban’s walk away from the table posed the greatest possible threat to Gov. Hogan’s future political ambitions. Hogan was set to become chairman of the National Governors Association in August. And the theme of his year in the role was infrastructure, especially P3s. The collapse of his signature P3 initiative would have made him a national laughingstock. Under this pressure, the governor caved.”

16) Maryland/Virginia: “Those BPW promises of better transit along with Lexus Lanes? ‘The public should temper its expectations’ says top Virginia highway official.”

17) Missouri:  Writing in the St. Louis Business Journal, Jacob Kirn reports that “an adviser to the city of St. Louis expressed skepticism about big-name bidders seeking to privatize Lambert airport after initially praising them, new documents show.” The adviser, Moelis, conducted interviews with potential bidders, “but after the interviews, held from Nov. 21 to Nov. 26 at the Magnolia Hotel downtown, the fortunes of the two consortiums changed, according to the records. STL Aviation and Momentum ‘demonstrated some common concerns…’ the Moelis report said, including a question as to whether they would only be involved in a deal for Lambert for a ‘short-term.’ It also cited the ‘airline perspective.’ Lambert’s carriers would have had veto power over any privatization deal and the Moelis report indicated carriers had a ‘very positive’ view of the privatization process and its participants but identified the STL Aviation and Momentum bids as ‘two clear exceptions.’ The carriers in particular expressed concern about TBI, the American subsidiary of VINCI Airports, a French firm that was part of the STL Aviation team, and also mentioned the use of private equity as a negative for STL Aviation and Momentum.” [Sub required]

See also “a few more potentially relevant details” about their sources of funding from @tweets_native.

Criminal Justice and Immigration

18) NationalCoreCivic declined 3.2% after it reported “lower utilization by Immigration and Customs Enforcement than it had forecast.”  The Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) also issues guidance for 2020 normalized FFO per share of $2.30-$2.40 vs. $2.62 for 2019. [Transcript].

In its conference call, the GEO Group weighed in on the issue of California’s ban on private prisons and the separate lawsuits it and the federal government have filed against the state law. GEO CEO George Zoley said “our present expectation is that the three ICE facility annexes at Central Valley, Desert View and Golden State will transition under the new ICE contracts during the second half of 2020. And we’ll generate approximately an additional $100 million in revenues on an annual basis. However, our initial guidance for 2020 has not assumed any contribution from these facilities. We note that the president’s proposed budget for Immigration and Customs Enforcement included a 23% increase in funding.” GEO also reported “we have ample capacity under our revolver to take out the remaining amount outstanding of our 2022 senior notes, which is our debt obligations with the nearest maturity. And we continue to enjoy access to capital with several dozens of lenders and financial institutions currently committed under our credit facility.”

19) National: The Trump administration has filed a federal lawsuit naming Governor Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and the State of California for banning the operation of private detention facilities. “The complaint is seeking a federal judge in San Diego to rule Assembly Bill 32 unconstitutional because it violates the United States Supremacy Clause.

On January 1, 2020, AB 32, became law and eliminated all contracts with private or for-profit prisons in the state. By signing the bill into law, Gov. Newsom made the state responsible for incarcerating all of its prisoners and closing down all four ICE detention centers. According to the complaint, ‘California can not dictate that choice for the Federal Government, especially in a manner that discriminates against the Federal Government and with whom it contracts.’” 

20) National: Federal judges concerned for the safety of the federal inmates at CoreCivic’s Silverdale jail facility have ordered that they be relocated. “Judge Sandy Mattice, after consultation with Judge Travis McDonough, issued an order removing the federal prisoners from Silverdale. Sources said he told the U.S. marshals to ‘get them out of there.’ Sheriff Hammond said he had been aware of issues at Silverdale and there have been investigations underway.”

21) NationalLitigation involving both private and public border wall efforts is continuing in federal district court. “With the International Boundary and Water Commission still analyzing the hydrologic impact data needed to determine if a riverside wall would impact the Rio Grande, U.S. District Judge Randy Crane granted an extension of time to all parties in the government’s lawsuit against the private border wall builders Fisher Industries and its co-defendants, Fisher Sand and Gravel Co., TGR Construction and Neuhaus and Sons.” 

In November, journalist Todd Miller reported that “ICE, CBP and Coast Guard together issued more than 344,000 contracts for border and immigration control services worth $80.5 billion between 2006 and 2018. ICE issued more than 35,000 contracts (costing $18.2 billion), CBP more than 64,000 ($27 billion), and the Coast Guard more than 245,000 ($35.3 billion). CBP contracts alone between 2006 and 2018 exceed the accumulated INS budgets from between 1975 and 1998 of approximately $26.1billion. They are also certainly less than the true figures, as reports by the US Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reports have consistently criticized these departments for their poor data transparency.” Miller provides profiles of 14 border security corporations. [Transnational Institute. More Than a Wall: Corporate Profiteering and the Militarization of US Borders].

22) AlabamaCoreCivic is eyeing Elmore County land for one of the state’s new prisons. “‘There’s been a lot of backlash from the community over it,’ Ogburn said. ‘All three of our schools would be within four miles of the prison.’ There’s also the stigma of being a small town centered around a massive prison, Ogburn and other residents told APR on Sunday. Ogburn started an online petition asking residents to sign their names opposing the prison. As of Tuesday evening more than 1,500 people had done so. She plans to deliver those signatures to Gov. Kay Ivey’s office.”

23) Colorado: Marianne Goodland and Joey Bunch of Colorado Politics have written an in-depth cover story on the politics of prisons in the state, which is wrestling with the issue of how to transition from private to public prisons. “Private prisons have long been beasts of political burden, mixing suspicions about profit-driven justice to keep beds full with cheaper costs than state-run institutions. That concern has especially permeated the question of facilities housing undocumented immigrants. The humanitarian crisis rose to new heights when thousands of children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border last year, under order of the Trump administration. The ICE Detention Center in Aurora, operated by GEO Group, has weathered accusations of abuse and maltreatment of inmates, attracting protests and weekly inspections by U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, a rising-star Democrat from Aurora. Last August, new liberal members of the Denver City Council sought to drive out GEO and CoreCivic, which operate six halfway houses for about 500 recently released offenders in the city. Leaders are still trying to work out a contract extension or another solution, rather than keeping people who would go into a community release program in state prisons that can’t currently absorb them.” 

24) KansasFormer Department of Corrections secretary Joe Norwood faces an ethics complaint for taking a job with CoreCivic after negotiating a $362 million contract with the company. “Rep. John Carmichael, a Democrat from Wichita, said legislators were ‘powerless to stop what appeared to be a sweetheart deal between the prior administration and CoreCivic.’ ‘It should come as no surprise CoreCivic has rewarded Mr. Norwood for his help in selling Kansas a pig in a poke,’ Carmichael said. Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, hired Norwood to run the corrections department in 2016. Norwood left the agency when Gov. Laura Kelly took office in January 2019.” Carmichael says “this sad story is another example of why we need true transparency in government. Hiding contracts and negotiations under a veil of secrecy on the pretext of confidential contract negotiations facilitates what amounts to a theft of taxpayer money.” 

25) New York: Gothamist’s Christopher Robbins reports that under pressure from law enforcement, state lawmakers are watering down bail reform. “‘This isn’t a progressive move to end money bail, this is a cave to fearmongering of law enforcement and DAs that cherry picked a few cases to try and get the Senate to do exactly what they’re doing,’ [Tina Luongo, the attorney-in-charge at the Legal Aid Society] said. ‘Which is to undo the reforms that were debated and discussed, analyzed with data, and were well thought out, that started on January 1st. It adds dangerousness in a state where, progressively, it has not had dangerousness for over 40 years.’” 

Public Services

26) National: Waste Dive reports that company executives believe the DOJ is poised to approve Waste Management’s $4.9 billion buyout of Advanced Disposal Services. Questions have been raised about competitiveness in the sector. “Beyond those required regulatory steps, Waste Management appears to be equally focused on a detailed integration plan to retain both employees and customers. The challenges of syncing up an acquisition of this scale are well-known, especially for Waste Management given its past experience.” 

27) Florida: Bill Mick, the program director and host of “Bill Mick LIVE,” says “Waste Management is taking Brevard to the cleaners.” Mick explains: “The new contract proposal the County Commission approved Tuesday would allow a 39% price increase for services to residential properties. In round numbers, a $140 annual bill would go to $194. That’s a steep hike. The first excuse I heard was that Waste Management has not had an increase in seven years. So what? They negotiated that contract, too. Oh, and the contract contains price hikes each year of up to 3%. Nice. That is if you are Waste Management. It’s time to take negotiations away from county employees and make the commission do the work. It’s Monopoly money to staff, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to me and you.” 

28) Illinois/NationalAre private nonprofit contractors behaving responsibly toward immigrant children? “Child immigrant detention is a billion-dollar industry. Heartland Human Care Services, which runs the detention centers, received about $47 million in government grants in 2014. By 2018, the grants increased to more than $57 million. As funding for Heartland detention centers has increased, so have executive salaries—David Sinski’s annual salary rose from $184,498 in 2014 to $225,952 in 2018. The organizers’ full demands are that Heartland immediately cease intaking migrant children; end its contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and ORR to detain migrant children; release and reunify detained children with their sponsors in the United States without sharing sponsors’ data with ICE; and pledge to use its resources to fight for a true detention-free, deportation-free and ICE-free zone in Chicago.”

29) International: Leslie Wolffe, the President of OSSTF, the Toronto teachers bargaining unit representing secondary school teachers in high schools, adult day schools, alternative schools and programs, says “In the Ernest & Young report in Ontario’s finances, pg 23, you’ll find the plan for privatization of health care, social services and education. While they’re fighting with educators, they are stealthily moving to privatize in the other two areas.”

Everything Else

30) National: What’s the contracting situation for the federal response to the coronavirus/ COVID19? Covington’s Inside Government Contracts has some details on the bidding and what the government is looking for in this public-private effort.

31) New York: The New York City Housing Authority’s signing of a $1.5 billion management deal with developers to make repairs marks a “major privatization step,” The Bond Buyer reports. “City officials are looking to convert at least 62,000 public housing units to rental housing developments under the federal Section 8 program by the end of 2028. Privatization is also a flashpoint. While budget observers say the city and state lack the means to grasp a capital-needs backlog that exceeds $30 billion, tenant advocacy groups fear privatization.” [Sub required]

Governing for the Common Good

32) National: Madeline Janis, executive director of the national strategic policy center Jobs to Move America, says public officials should say no to economic incentives that don’t advance the public good. “We must use the power of public dollars to address economic injustices amid rapid technological change. We need strategies and actions that move us towards an inclusive, clean economy. Put simply, if corporations want to make a “home” in cities through public contracts and incentives, they must do so by committing to make honest investments in their workers and the communities in which they live. That’s public dollars being used for the public good.”

33) CaliforniaThe Partnership for Working Families points us to a new report by Rachel Deutsch, Rey Fuentes and Tia Koonse on “California’s Hero Labor Law”—the Private Attorneys General Act, which recovered $88 million for the state from lawbreaking corporations in 2019. “In tackling major labor-law violations, primarily wage theft, California collected more than $88 million from lawbreaking corporations in 2019, thanks to workers using the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA). According to new data compiled by UCLA Labor Center, The Center for Popular Democracy, and the Partnership for Working Families, PAGA claims involved serious wrongdoing by massive employers.” In its report on the study, the San Francisco Chronicle said “in the largest such case, Walmart agreed to a settlement in 2018 providing seats for its cashiers in California and paying $10.7 million to 99,000 current and former cashiers and $33 million to the state. Bank of America had previously signed a setting agreement that paid $2.4 million to its tellers and $10 million to the state.”