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Advocacy groups on a variety of school issues are urging districts to use caution in deciding whether to outsource management of food service departments.

“It is a complex exercise to get through it all,” said Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials. “It is not an easy process. It can be very emotional. Make sure you are not doing it willy-nilly, but are doing it as a sound, long-term financial decision.”

Outsourcing of any kind should be looked at very carefully, added Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Board Association. “It is very important for districts to have a carefully worded contract.”

While both organizations provide information to members on outsourcing, neither takes a definitive pro or con position on the issue.

“It should be a local decision on what is best for the district based on community needs and the budget,” Robinson said. District officials need to be informed before they proceed with the process of outsourcing food service, Himes added.

The School Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania works to promote self-operated food service departments in school districts, but the organization is not against the use of contract management firms where appropriate, said Lori McCoy, incoming association president.

“It is not black or white,” she said.

The majority of SNAPA members are self-operated school districts, but the organization also has management firms among its membership, McCoy said. All members have equal access to training webinars and other resources pertaining to the marketing, merchandising and promotion of the school lunch program to students.

Using caution

Local districts that have outsourced proceeded with caution.

The process starts with issuing a request for proposals that asks for terms, conditions and pricing, as mandated by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

When the South Middleton School District board authorized its staff in November 2012 to seek proposals, it received an earful from cafeteria workers concerned about how outsourcing would affect the school culture and their retirement and seniority.

“We’re a community within a community,” Mary Lou Griffin said in November 2012 when describing the close-knit, working relationship among the W.G. Rice Elementary School kitchen staff. “The children are our common identity. We encourage them. We comfort them. Not only will jobs be taken away from the community, but we will have strangers feeding our children.”

Each school district needs to be aware that private vendors might have a different culture and management style than the rest of the school district, Robinson said during a recent phone interview.

When South Middleton negotiated its contract, it included language for year one preserving the health care coverage and hourly wage for those former district employees retained by Aramark, said district business manager Rick Vensel. The contract terms also included a 2.1 percent wage increase in 2013-2014.

The Carlisle Area School District this spring agreed to outsource its cafeteria management to Chartwells starting in the 2014-2015 school year. In following the selection process mandated by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the school board formed an evaluation committee that reviewed and scored the six request for proposals the district received in late March.

As part of the process, committee members visited Big Spring High School, where Chartwells was completing the second year of its contract with the Big Spring School District. Carlisle Superintendent John Friend said he received positive feedback from superintendents on Chartwells when he contracted other districts serving as references.

Both Aramark and Chartwells representatives say they tend to give hiring priority to former school district employees because they are familiar with the students, schools, equipment and culture of the district.

Pros and cons

One benefit of outsourcing often mentioned by school officials is that once food service workers are terminated from the district payroll, they become eligible for unemployment compensation over the summer and when school is out for the holidays.

Normally, such workers are not eligible for unemployment because they are given reasonable assurance of returning to work at the start of the next school year, said Shawn Farr, Carlisle Area School District’s director of finance.

The ability to collect unemployment is more of a benefit for younger or newly hired employees who have not accumulated as many years of retirement as the older workers who no longer enjoy a pension because of outsourcing, said Valerie Nartowicz, outgoing SNAPA president.

Another benefit officials mentioned is the ability of management firms to leverage greater buyer power and economies of scale that can help make an operation more cost-efficient.

The downside of such arrangement is lost control and lost flexibility, Nartowicz said. She said that while the management firms enjoy the substantial price breaks that go with purchasing food in greater volumes, the agreements they have with the wholesalers and manufacturers lock them into product lines which might not appeal to the customer base of individual school buildings.

Self-operated food service departments have greater flexibility to order different or newly emerging products with a quicker turnaround that does not require approval higher up in the corporate ladder, Nartowicz said.

“Chartwells offers national programs that have the flexibility to be customized at the local school district level,” said Rachel Kuna, a spokeswoman for Chartwells School Dining Services. “Our menus are planned by the food service management team at each district to ensure that the foods offered not only meet the regulations, but also are foods students at the district like.”

While Aramark has agreements to purchase specific ingredients, there are a variety of types within a specific category of food to offer flexibility, said Karen Cutler, director of corporate communications. “We tailor our menu approach to local flavor profiles and the desires of the communities in which we operate.”

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