Fairfield schools' food program to be spun off to outside vendor

The jobs of 72 food service workers in the public schools are at risk after a vote by the Board of Education to outsource the school district's food services program.

The 6-2 vote to subcontract the program and to authorize the school district's central office to prepare a "request for qualifications" from companies interested in running it followed a brief discussion at the school board's Aug. 27 meeting.

The motion to outsource the program wasn't on the school board's agenda Aug. 27, but the board voted 7-1 to add it to the agenda that night and then voted 6-2 to approve it after an eight-minute public discussion.

John Convertito, the board member who made the motion, said the food services program, which employs 16 cook managers -- one at each of the town's schools -- and 56 general workers, was supposed to be a self-funded program, but the board was funding health-care benefits and pension contributions out of the school board's budget.

According to Doreen Munsell, the school district's director of finance and business services, the program operated at a $70,000 loss in 2010-11, a $265,000 loss in 2011-12, and a $380,000 loss in 2012-13.

The Board of Education in June hiked the price of school lunches for this school year by a dime at the elementary schools and a quarter at the middle schools and high schools. But Superintendent of Schools David G. Title said at the time that the only way to eliminate the deficit would be to increase the number of students who bought lunches. "The only way to get out of this box is to increase participation. You can't price your way out of it. You couldn't charge enough," he said.

Convertito said another reason for his motion was the complexity of legislation regarding healthy food. "With the new legislations that have come forward in the last two years, it's become more and more obvious to me that we as a district cannot do this," he said. "I just think it's time we investigate outside vendors and we truly get in some good healthy lunch program in our schools, which I think are better served by an outside vendor."

Philip Dwyer, chairman of the Board of Education, also indicated that the complexity of legislation regarding healthy lunches is a reason for switching to an outside vendor to manage the program. "A specialized outside contractor would bring expertise with regulations, trends and best practices to the district," he said. He said an outside contractor also would have "a variety of resources, such as a broad base of experience in nutrition, software management practices and state and federal compliance issues."

"Our focus is on educating children and their professional focus is on delivering healthy, high-quality food," Dwyer said.

Dwyer said the Board of Education discussed asking an outside contractor to "provide an opportunity for our current food service employees to become the employees of the contractor going forward."

"Of course we cannot offer guarantees in this regard," he said.

The school board's decision to outsource the food services program came shortly after a vote to increase by 2 percent the pay of the 72 food service employees, who are not union members. After the 2 percent increase, the 11 cook managers at each elementary school are paid $19.66 an hour, the three middle school cook managers are paid $21.96 an hour, and the two high school cook managers make $23.99 an hour. Fifty-one of the general workers after the increase are paid $12.98 an hour and the other five are paid $14.24 an hour. The total estimated cost of the salary increases was $18,223.

Dwyer said the Board of Education would retain control over school lunch prices after the program is outsourced and that those prices are reviewed annually.

The board chairman said that a "request for proposals" from prospective food-services vendors is being drafted by the district's central office in consultation with a parent group that provides advice on nutrition. The RFP, he said, would include "specifications and standards to ensure quality health foods, which, of course, guide meals."

Dwyer said the town's Purchasing Department and the state Department of Education have to review the RFP. "Thus, the drafting of the RFP and selection of a contractor will take some time, and I personally believe any transition is likely to occur sometime in mid-year 2014," he said.

Robert Grady, a Shelton resident who has been following the issue because he has friends who work in Fairfield's food services program, said he was troubled by the process under which the board voted to go to an outside contractor. He said the board should have tabled the motion to its next meeting, instead of adding it to the agenda and voting on it in one meeting.

Grady, who contacted the media about the issue, said he was offended the board made its decision so quickly and that tabling the motion would have allowed the public to be aware of the issue and comment on it. No one in the audience at the board's Aug. 27 meeting offered a comment on Convertito's motion to outsource the program.

"To me, that's reasonable," Grady said of tabling the motion. "That's mindful people doing mindful things."

School board member Paul Fattibene, who voted against the motion to outsource the program as well as the motion to add it to the agenda, said the program "has certain, or currently appears to have certain, deficiencies because of the loss that was incurred in the last fiscal year and clearly some changes need to be made."

But Fattibene said he didn't believe he was given "sufficient information to make an informed decision as to whether this or not this course of action is the best to do at this time or not."

Jennifer Kennelly, a school board member who also voted against the motion to outsource the program, said she is concerned about the board losing accountability and control over the school lunch program. "I will also say concerns for the staff. Not having been through the RFP process, I'd be very concerned there are protections in place for our staff members that are strong and have some heft to them because they [food service employees] are part of what's making this district function."

Kennelly said the decision to outsource the program was "not just a dollars and cents issue."

"This is affecting an awful lot of our staff members, and I would want them protected," Kennelly said.

Dwyer said other school districts have found value in outsourcing their food service program -- Convertito had cited as examples Westport and Weston -- and said he doesn't think those districts only viewed the outsourced lunch program from a monetary perspective. Convertito said he believes the food service programs in Westport and Weston are better than Fairfield's and that lunch prices are comparable.

Kennelly asked if the board was bound to outsource the program if it didn't like responses from the RFP, and Dwyer said the board was "moving forward on this to go to an outside vendor."