No free lunch 

MCPS reconsiders rush to privatize food service

Contrary to the fears of concerned watchdogs, a June 30 Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) Board of Trustees meeting did not end with a go-ahead to put management of the district’s food service division in the private hands of Maryland-based Sodexho USA.

Sodexho, in fact, was referenced only obliquely by the Board of Trustees and MCPS presenters, and in such a way as to undercut a financial analysis made in a preliminary Sodexho proposal. For now, the question of whether to privatize the school district’s food service operations—and, if so, what company might best take on that task—appears to be on hold while the district regroups.

That outcome is fine with Bill Howell, a Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers union field consultant who was present at the meeting on behalf of unionized MCPS workers.

“We’ve had people here at each and all of these meetings, we’ve watched what’s happened from the beginning.” said Howell. I guess [tonight’s result] is a good step, but we’re going to fight the need for a request for proposal process at all. We don’t need it.”

Under normal district policy, a request for proposal [RFP] process is initiated when an outside contractor is being considered. In this case, no RFP has yet been initiated.

A May 26 Sodexho proposal to take over management of MCPS’s food service claims both the district’s food service divisions—elementary and high school—are in the red, at an average of roughly $144,205 annually since the 2000-2001 school year. The Sodexho proposal cites too few students eating school lunches as a culprit and guarantees to put the food service division $125,000 in the black by the 2005-2006 school year. Sodexho’s proposal indicates, somewhat vaguely, that the company would rectify the participation problem by selling more lunches to students.

But according to MCPS Director of Central Services Karl Jones, who spoke at Thursday’s meeting, Sodexho’s interpretation of the district’s finances doesn’t match his understanding of the numbers. For one thing, Jones noted, student participation is actually on the rise.

“While we’ve lost students in the elementary districts, participation has increased by about 3 percentage points during the same time period—to about 57 percent—the last two years,” Jones said.

Sodexho’s proposal pegged participation at 44.3 percent.

Jones’ update on MCPS’s five-year food services plan also noted that only the district’s elementary division—including elementary and middle schools—has lost money in recent years, but that it made money this year, though it is still operating with a deficit.

“This year, we made $68,000 [at the elementary level]. We went from a $212,000 deficit to roughly $145,000. The high-school food service has been in the plus for many, many years—six-figure plus. Right now it stands at about $200,000 to the good. We’re still in the red [at the elementary level], but we’re making headway.”

Where that leaves the Sodexho proposal is unclear, but following the Board of Trustees meeting, Jones said, “I think the intent now will be to identify the discrepancies, to sit down and determine where the baseline information is, so we can be correct.”

The issue of privatizing MCPS food services was raised after the MCPS board was awarded a second Civic Star Award, an honor co-sponsored by Sodexho. As has been reported by the Missoulian, some members of the MCPS school board and support staff were feted by Sodexho representatives in San Diego while attending the National School Boards Conference. Says Clark: “I said to one of their representatives, ‘what can you do for us.’ I can’t remember if it was in San Diego or not, but I approached them. That began the process.”

That process led to the appearance of Robert Schrenk, a Sodexho regional support director, at a June 1 special meeting of the MCPS Board of Trustees.

Schrenk’s presence, and the appearance of the Sodexho proposal in the June 1 Board of Trustees special meeting informational packet, alerted Sheri Postma, a local union leader representing MCPS employees, who feared the school board was on the verge of rushing into a decision without appropriate public discussion.

“They were going to act on [the proposal],” Postma says of the June 8 meeting, where the issue was first discussed. “The board members were all for it. There was no mention of an RFP, nothing.”

Schrenk did not return repeated calls for comment.

More questions from a concerned public pushed the issue back to a June 14 meeting. Another round of public concerns, and questions raised by board member Theresa Jacobs over the ethical nature of the San Diego junket and its ties to the proposal, pushed back discussion again.

While MCPS re-groups to crunch its numbers to see if there’s even a fiscal problem to be addressed, never mind whether privatizing the district’s food service is a viable solution, a Sodexho client in Palo Alto, Calif., is rushing to get out of its contract with the food service giant, which holds contracts with more than 400 school districts nationwide.

Palo Alto Unified School District’s Sodexho contract expired at midnight, June 30, but measures to make arrangements with other bidders began well in advance. “Sodexho’s contract was ending, and so we decided to look to a provider who could better handle our situation,” said PAUSD School Board President John Barton.

Barton noted that changes in California law requiring healthier foods in school cafeterias, plus Sodexho’s “apathetic” approach to dealing with the changes, prompted his district to look elsewhere.

Barton further noted that a desire for healthier options was just one facet of a problem that had been building for some time.

“We have a policy that our food service needs to be cost-neutral, and for the last few years [Sodexho had] been encroaching on the general fund.” According to PAUSD Business Manager Gerry Matranga, the district had to shell out $213,000 last year to keep the program going.

“Sodexho did take a loss, but their…downward exposure has a limit, where the school board’s has no limit,” Matranga said.

That’s a financial analysis trustees might want to take into account next time the issue of privatizing the district’s food service is raised.

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