Texas A&M Looks for Savings, Finds a Fight

Chancellor of the Texas A&M System John Sharp discusses conference realignment with Evan Smith at TribLive on September 29, 2011.
Chancellor of the Texas A&M System John Sharp discusses conference realignment with Evan Smith at TribLive on September 29, 2011.

Sometimes, you go looking for a fight.

John Sharp, the new Texas A&M University System chancellor, is out to privatize services at the main campus in College Station, and he’s getting the kind of pushback that is pure gold for someone in his position.

He says he is digging for savings that can be used for education, faculty and other things people think of when thinking about college.

That leaves everybody else fighting for jobs that he says they won’t lose.

It’s a classic John Sharp joint. I ought to know — I worked for him for a couple of years when he was state comptroller. At that time, in the mid- to late-1990s, Sharp was doing biennial “performance reviews” of the state government to ferret out savings and efficiencies. He expanded it to schools after lawmakers gave him permission to scrutinize local school districts if invited.

He was good at getting invited, and cranked out reports full of recommendations for big and small districts.

But the state agencies were stuck with Sharp with or without invitation. And he had extra leverage. The comptroller has the final say over the price tags that go on things in government. This tax will bring in X. Cutting that program will save Y.

Sharp, a former state legislator, could propose something and more or less dare budget writers to ignore it. They were in on it, too: making the cuts was a way to find money for other things. And passing a tax bill or another revenue measure was impossible until voters were convinced that all other ways to save money had been explored.

Better yet, the squeals from the schools and agencies being squeezed sold the public and the Legislature on the toughness of the proposals. If the institutions are yelling, it must be good stuff, right?

Now, as chancellor, he doesn’t have that extra leverage. He has something else, though. His office asked private-sector bidders to examine food services, janitorial services, building maintenance and landscaping, and to come back with bids detailing how they would handle those operations and what they would charge.

There’s no guarantee anything will get privatized.

Sharp speculates that anyone who loses a campus job will get a job with the private firm that takes over. According to The Bryan-College Station Eagle, he told one group that in other instances, the fired employees “went to work for a private company at same salaries, basically, same benefits, same health care.” That would be up to the bidders, and assurances, if any are forthcoming, would probably show up in their bids.

These are big operations. For instance, in Brazos County, the A&M system and its flagship campus have 765 buildings with more than 22.5 million square feet of space.

Together, the four operations have 1,880 employees and combined annual budgets of $92.3 million. Sharp has plenty of thoughts about how he could use the savings. “What could we do with $11 million? A 3 percent across-the-board pay raise. I don’t know that that would happen, but that’s what it would cost.”

He and his aides say that for years food services has been losing about $1 million annually. And he contends the bidding process is a fast and cheap way to find out whether that can be turned around.

A&M’s four requests for proposals — one for each service — have been issued, and bids are due in April.

Employees on the campus and in the system aren’t organized. Other A&M campuses had already privatized some areas, like food services, before Sharp took over last year. Turnout at forums on the proposals has been large. A protest on campus last week attracted a crowd and local news coverage. Both sides are playing on tradition — a loaded word in a town where it’s not unusual for people to hand you business cards that include when they graduated from A&M.

The faculty senate put it in a letter: “We believe the intended actions will have significant negative impacts on operations and morale at the university yet are not likely to result in significant cost savings.”

For the new chancellor, that was a gift — just the appearance of pain he needs. As it did back in the comptroller days, it sets the table for any budgeting and tuition increases in the future.

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