Concord School District puts food service privatization on hold
A lunch of a chicken sandwich and french fries waits to be eaten at the Concord High School cafeteria, April 15, 2013. The Concord High School is weighing privatizing the lunch service. (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
Food service employees in the Concord School District will keep their jobs for at least another year, as administrators have put possible privatization on hold for now.
“There’s just a lot of moving parts to the food service program, a lot of regulations, and we just felt within the time frame we had that it would be best to just take it a little slower,” said Business Administrator Jack Dunn.
Administrators met with food service employees in March to say they were planning on seeking proposals from private food service providers. The original plan was to have proposals in by May. But on April 5, Dunn and Superintendent Chris Rath told food service employees that they will wait to issue requests for proposals. The requests probably will not go out until the fall, Dunn said.
Food service workers, typically on a three-year contract, will begin negotiating a one-year contract soon, said Denise Byrne, head cook at Christa McAuliffe School and a union steward. When administrators first announced possible privatization, many cooks said they were nervous about their jobs and felt that the administrators weren’t listening to their suggestions. Administrators told the cooks one reason they were holding off for a year is because they felt that they didn’t give the workers enough notice, Byrne said.
But Dunn said the main reason for the delay is that they need more time to research privatization and study the state of the current program. A new food services director will also be hired for one year, because Director Bill Janson is retiring at the end of the year. There is no official timeline in place for when the requests for proposal might be sent out. The document Dunn has been working on is already 51 pages long, he said. When the proposal is ready to go out, it will need to be approved by the New Hampshire Department of Education.
Ideally, any proposal would request that the private company hire the district’s current employees, said Human Resources Director Larry Prince.
The decision to look into contracting out services was spurred by a declining number of students buying school lunches and an array of new federal regulations that public school cafeterias must comply with, including specific requirements on healthy food options. A private company might have better resources to handle the regulations and to market cafeteria food to kids, Dunn said. This year’s food service budget is $1.7 million.
Several cooks said they offered suggestions on ways the district could make food services more profitable. Their biggest suggestion was not to allow high school students to purchase lunch off campus. Right now, any student can purchase lunch across the street at Pizza Fina, and many students do so. Administrators told them closing campus is not an option, Byrne said.
“The bottom line is food service is losing money, and we made suggestions to management of ideas that we thought would help food service, and one of them was closing the Concord High campus,” she said.
Administrators say they are just exploring the possibility of privatizing and nothing is set in stone. The district looked into contracting out services several years ago and ultimately decided not to do so at that time. But gathering proposals will help them decide whether there are better, more efficient options.
“All in all we don’t have a lot of issues, we have great staff,” Dunn said. “We’re not looking to make money off (privatization), we just need it to run even.”