September 17, 2013

Privatizing school cafeteria workers

A reader complained, with some justification, that it's hard to make out just what the Board of Education did in its quest to shave costs and perhaps hand over cafeteria services to a private firm. (See today's news story here.
So let me try again to lay out the sequence.
Last year, the board agreed it should try to do something to stem the red ink that has flowed for a long time in its food services program. For many years, the lunch program has run deficits of $200,000 or more. Its members said the time had come to stop pouring extra money in annually because they needed to spend it on education, not food.
So the board agreed to seek proposals from private companies that run cafeterias. It looked over the responses it got and in April, the board voted unanimously to authorize the school superintenent "to negotiate and execute a contract with Whitsons Culinary Group to assume responsibility for cafeteria food service operation for the Bristol Public Schools commencing with the 2013‐2014 school year."
That was a public vote.
On another track, though, school officials were negotating with union that represents 55 cafeteria workers whose jobs would have been lost if Whitsons took over.
According to Chris Wilson, the board chairman, officials spent 20 hours negotiating with the union and couldn't come up with a deal both sides liked. So they declared an impasse and brought in a mediator.
The mediator helped them work out a new contract that would take effect if the union and the school board endorsed it.
Obviously, if the board backed it, then Whitsons would be out of luck. They're not going to keep the cafeteria workers and hire a private company to do the same thing.
The union approved the tentative deal. The school board was asked to do the same at a special meeting earlier this month.
On that vote, the five Republicans voted against it and the four Democrats, including Wilson, backed the negotiated deal.
So it failed on a 5-4 vote (or a 4-5 vote , if that's more clear, though it's not newspaper style).
Now the union will appeal the rejection to a state arbitration panel that will, if past history means anything, impose the negotiated terms on both sides regardless of the board's opposition. That'll probably take a year.
In the meantime, the board will likely keep talking to Whitsons and may be able to move ahead with privatization. I don't really know. It's certainly something to keep an eye on.
The bottom line is that the union workers are still on the job and may remain there for a long while, but privatization of the food service is a proposal a majority of the school board continues to seek.
How all of this plays out in the mayoral election, who knows? Wilson voted in April to move forward with privatization but voted in favor of a deal with the union in September, but so did the other three Democrats.
The five Republicans haven't deviated from their desire to privatize. And they are, ultimately, in the majority.

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