Concord school administrators consider privatizing food services

Last modified: 4/2/2013 11:25:32 PM
The Concord School District is exploring the possible benefits of privatizing its food services, a move that is drawing sharp criticism from employees even in its early stages.

“You give your all to something then all of a sudden – bam – they more or less push you aside,” said Martha Wyatt, head cook at Abbot-Downing School.

District officials are still researching the idea, and no official decision has been made. Business Administrator Jack Dunn is drawing up a request for proposals that must be approved by the New Hampshire Department of Education before it can go out. He, Superintendent Chris Rath and Director of Human Resources Larry Prince met with a handful of food service employees Thursday to tell them the process was beginning. When the request for proposals is completed, Dunn said it will be shared with the employees. The district looked at privatizing food services several years ago but decided not to do so at that time.

“As we told folks last week, it is something we’re looking at,” he said. “We’re going to share the (request for proposals), and we want to bring all the cooks together again and go through and answer what we can.”

Director of Food Services Bill Janson declined to comment on the issue. Janson announced Monday that he is retiring at the end of the year. He had been considering retirement before privatization was mentioned, he said.

A private company, such as Cafe Services or Chartwells, may have more money and better resources to comply with new federal regulations on lunch offerings and for marketing and education. Participation in the district’s lunch programs has been declining, Dunn said, although he did not immediately have numbers. This year’s food service budget is $1.7 million.

The request for proposals Dunn is working on is already more than 20 pages long and seeks information on compliance with regulations, free and reduced lunch programs, menu options, when payments are expected and more. The request will go out once it’s been approved by the state. There are 29 school administrative units in the state with districts that contract food services, said Cheri White, administrator for the state Bureau of Nutrition Programs and Services.

Ideally, it will recommend that the private companies look at hiring the district’s current employees, Prince said. The district has 33 food service employees.

Prince said he met with the head cooks for the first time about three weeks ago, after rumors began swirling about privatization, and additional cooks attended last week’s meeting. At that meeting, administrators answered questions and set mid-May as an ideal time line for when a decision will be made, Prince said. Food services employees’ contracts are up at the end of June, but negotiations on new contracts haven’t begun in case the district decides to privatize.

“We absolutely understand that we need to make a decision one way or another as quickly as we can,” Prince said. “It’s a very sensitive situation, but I think we owe them the professional courtesy to let them know what’s going (on) as we go down this road.”

But several employees said they feel like they aren’t being heard. In addition to being concerned for their own job safety, they say privatizing could hurt the program and be bad for the students. The cooks are invested in the children and the community, and private employees would not have that some connection, said Wyatt and several others.

“The personality with the kids, it’s not going to be the same if we go into privatized,” Wyatt said. “We wipe noses, we tie shoes and the little things.”

District officials are being more forthcoming than the last time they considered privatizing, she said, but that could just be because rumors were spreading among employees. At the meeting, employees offered a few suggestions for bringing in more money, including prohibiting high school students from leaving campus for lunch. That option is not on the table, Rath said.

“It just felt like they didn’t want to hear us, they didn’t want to listen to us,” said Wendy Kingsbury, an assistant cook at Mill Brook School. “By the sound of it, and my opinion, they’ve already made up their mind and it’s going to go through.”

But Kathy McIntyre, head cook at Rundlett Middle School, said she remembers the last time the district went through this process. Just because the administrators are comparing services and prices doesn’t mean they will make the switch, she said. If they do, McIntyre’s biggest concern is pay and benefit contributions. District employees are in the New Hampshire Retirement System now, but wouldn’t be with a private company.

“The only thing that really concerns me is if the rate of pay would change, because I’ve been here for so long. And there may not be contributions made to retirement anymore,” she said. “That is really important to me at this point.”

Rath said last week’s meeting was difficult, and she praised the hard work of the employees.

“We have tremendous people in our program,” she said.

But although a switch is far from certain, it makes sense for the district to see if privatizing is a more efficient way to run the food service system.

“We have a responsibility to see if that’s a better economic model,” she said.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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