USA: School Board promises to scrutinize food outsourcing

15 January 2016
After a unanimous vote to privatise school breakfasts and lunches, the School Board of Roanoke School in Virginia, USA, promised to closely watch how the private company Sodexo performs.

The board also voted to create a committee, chaired by board member Dick Willis, to monitor Sodexo, a response to concerns raised by public speakers who opposed the move to outsource for a variety of reasons, including concerns for employees, local vendors and food quality.

“The board is asking to be held accountable to this decision,” Willis said. “We are going to be watching this like a hawk.”

Steve Barnett, the district’s assistant superintendent for operations, said Sodexo was the top pick of the staff committee chosen to evaluate bids that were submitted last year by three companies — Aramark, Chartwells and Sodexo. Those proposals have not been made public.

Sodexo had “what we felt was a really realistic proposal on their part,” Barnett said. “We felt like at the end of the day, they were the best fit for Roanoke City Public Schools.”

From the beginning of the negotiation process, which began last summer after the board gave its approval, the district demanded Sodexo put in place safeguards for current employees and local vendors, Barnett said.

Barnett said in an interview that each of the three companies had “very vague language” about those two issues in their original proposals. After negotiations with Sodexo began, the company’s proposal “tightened up immediately” in terms of specific assurances for employees and local vendors, to the point where the district was satisfied.

Under the terms of the draft contract, Roanoke’s 59 employees will be offered positions with Sodexo for at least their current pay and benefit levels, provided they pass background and drug screening tests.

However, the contract does not address the 82 cafeteria workers employed through Elwood Staffing, which has managed some food service jobs since 2012-13 at a cost of around $100,000 per month. Barnett said that the district wasn’t in a position to negotiate assurances for those positions because they are employed by Elwood and not Roanoke schools but that he suspects some would be hired by Sodexo.

The contract says Sodexo must use local vendors, which means those within 60 miles of Roanoke, whenever “practical and in the best interests of the students.” The district must be consulted if Sodexo intends to purchase goods worth more than $5,000 from a non-local vendor, which schools attorney Tim Spencer said is intended as “a check and balance.”

The board took up the issue Tuesday after hearing from 10 speakers, nine of whom were opposed to outsourcing.

Bettye Bell, the president of the Roanoke Education Association, which is opposed to privatization of school services of any kind, told the board ahead of its vote she felt they had already made up their mind. Bell said she disagreed with that decision and would be watching closely.

“I hope for the sake of all involved that this outsourcing works, although Sodexo has a poor record of performance,” she said. “In a few months I don’t want to be here saying, ‘I told you so,’ but I will if I have to.”

Read more (Source: The Roanoke Times)

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