The Long Beach Board of Education voted 3-2 to reject a plan to privatize the school district’s lunch program that administrators said would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.
At a contentious July 6 meeting, the board rejected a bid by Chartwells, a food- service company, to take over the district’s food operations and help fill a budget gap. School officials said the district lost about $400,000 in food services in each of the past two years due to a lack of student participation in the federally funded National School Lunch Program, which partially reimburses the district for lunches that the agency considers healthy.
But school board President Stewart Mininsky, Vice President Perry Bodnar and Trustee Darlene Tangney voted against the measure, with Mininsky saying that he felt that the district wasn’t yet ready for such a change in food service.
“I feel rushed on this,” he said. “I know some people will disagree and say it was a long process. I don’t think it was a long process. I just think it’s the wrong time.”
Last year, Mininsky and other trustees had called on administrators to take action to change the district’s food services department because of the deficits it was showing in order to stave off future losses.
At the time, the district transferred money from its general savings fund to a separate lunch fund to mitigate those losses, officials said.
The district’s chief operating officer, Michael DeVito, said that if the district had accepted Chartwells’ bid, which officials did not disclose, it would have eliminated the deficit and generated $150,000 to $180,000 in revenue per year.
DeVito said that after the vote, the lunch program — which cost the district $1.7 million this year — would continue under the National School Lunch Program.
Chartwells’ projected cost per lunch was $2.97, lower than the current cost which is a little over $3, Food Services Director Steven Kamlet said.
At the meeting, school officials said that the district currently employes 30 people in its food services department.
DeVito added that Chartwells was able to offer a lower cost per lunch because its labor model is different.
“It’s a less costly employment benefits package than what the district offers its current food services employees now, and that’s where the savings are,” he said.
At the meeting, Joanne Rea, president of the Long Beach School Employees Association — a group of employees that includes bus drivers, maintenance workers, clerical staff, food service workers, teaching assistants, and others, who have been pushing for a new contract after the last one expired two years ago — called on the board to reject the plan.
“To outsource this department is placing a dollar before the nutritional value of a child, because any outsourcing company that comes in here is all about a profit,” Rea said. “Please consider the health and welfare of the child before profits.”
She also emphasized a need for the district to focus on updating the old equipment in its cafeterias.
Representatives of Chartwells, however, said they toured the cafeterias and found that the equipment was functioning properly and would meet their needs.
Additionally, school officials said that current food service employees would have been offered jobs with Chartwells.
“I really think that in order to be fiscally responsible not just to our kids, to protect their programs, but to our taxpayers and to our entire community, we need to approve this contract,” said Trustee Maureen Vrona, who voted in favor of the proposal. “We met with Chartwells, and they said, first they offer the jobs to our current employees, and that they hire from within the community ...So we’re still going to have local people who care about our kids working in our food services program.”
DeVito said that when the district was considering the bid from Chartwells, administrators studied similar districts that retained the company, such as the Levittown School District, and said that they had experienced smooth and successful transitions.
Last year, the Herald reported that under the school lunch program, which reimburses districts a set amount for each meal, Long Beach schools lost 5 cents on each meal offered to students who qualify for free lunches, and 20 cents on meals on the reduced-price plan. About 37 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
Superintendent David Weiss said that the district hired a consultant, at a cost of $12,000, to determine whether the move to privatize would be viable.
Trustee Dr. Dennis Ryan said that the district thoroughly evaluated Chartwells’ proposal and, like a number of parents at the meeting, urged the board to approve the measure.
“Can we finally vote on it, please?” Ryan said. “We’ve just got to bring it to closure. We’ve beaten it to death.”