School Committee rejects switch in food service provider

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Even though there are still two more months of school left, the School Committee is busy getting things ready for the upcoming school year. And, that includes deciding on a food service provider.

Two years ago, the district switched from Sodexo to Aramark.

“When we had our last bid proposal, Aramark received the highest score, but we were happy with Sodexo, and didn’t want to switch,” said School Committee Chairwoman Janice Ruggieri.

“But, Aramark went to RIDE and the USDA to get the contract. This time, using the exact same bid process, Aramark was the lowest scorer. In fact, Sodexo was the highest scorer,” she said.

Aramark has a one-year contract with four one-year renewals – each year it needs to be renewed or there is the option to go out to bid.   

The conference room at Briggs Central Administration building was packed with ‘lunch ladies’ anxious to know their status for the upcoming year.

Michael Grey, Chairperson Vice President of Operations, North East Region, for Sodexo School Services addressed the School Committee.

“Sodexo is excited to be chosen to continue our relationship with Cranston. It has been a strong experience in the past, and we look forward to continuing it,” Grey said.

Ruggieri read off a list of changes that would go into effect for the upcoming school year. The changes were financial increases and decreases to the district.

An increase in management costs in one year of approximately $50,000, an increase in labor costs at approximately $190,000, an increase in commodity delivery of $10,000, an increase in the cost of Free After School snacks from 84 cents to $3.24, an increase of 385 percent or almost $51,000. An increase in food charges for full price, free and reduced lunch prices. This is an increase to the district only. It is not being passed onto the students.

The district is paying an increase $2,700 for cell phones used by Aramark. There is an increase for the cost of equipment repair of $25,000.

The reductions include a $53,000 decrease to employees’ fringe benefits, a decrease in promotions and programs for $24,000 and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable State Match decrease of $1,228,826.

According to Ruggieri, there is a guarantee of revenue that goes into the Enterprise Fund for Food Service (set aside for food service items only – repairs, equipment etc.) Each food service provider gives a guarantee.

“Aramark's proposal indicated that the Food Service Program would generate a $577,758 surplus during the 2017-2018 fiscal year,” said Joe Balducci, Chief Financial Officer for Cranston Public Schools. 

Karen Cutler, the media contact for Aramark, explained some of the changes.

“The cell phone increase is due to the fact that the majority of the schools do not have land lines which means we were not able to communicate with them effectively so we purchased cell phones in order to enable direct communication with each school. There are no programs or promotions being decreased. The reason why the amount is lower than the previous budget is because the majority of schools were marketed in prior years, therefore we do not need that as a line item in this year’s budget.

“The snacks program expanded from an after-school snack to a meal program. This will allow us to generate more revenue for the district with minimal cost increase due to the federal funding available to support this program. We are adding two more food components to turn the snack into a full meal. For example, we implemented this program in February 2016. Previous snack items consisted of two out of four components, such as milk and an apple. Now we offer all four components, which consist of a whole grain bagel, yogurt, milk and a fruit,” she said.

Ward 1 School Committee representative Jeff Gale was very detailed in explaining why he voted not to bring Sodexo back.

“I voted against the Superintendent's recommendation to award Sodexo the food service contract mostly out of a desire for continuity. I think both companies can do a fine job and, indeed, both have shown they are fully capable of delivering what they promise.

But I felt changing companies twice within two years would not be good for the schools or for the employees.  It would lead to a ping-pong effect that could be detrimental to a service that is vital to the running of our schools. Aramark has done an admirable job with upgrading equipment and increasing community involvement and I thought deserved a chance to continue with the contract.

Another big factor for me was hearing from Aramark employees about how happy they were with the company and didn't want to change. I received many emails on this issue and most of them were from Aramark employees. None of them were negative.  Employee satisfaction is important to me in all aspects of the district and receiving all those emails and seeing how many employees showed up to signal their support for Aramark meant something to me.

Another reason I support continuing the contract with Aramark is the company's credibility. Aramark fell short of their promised profit sharing and rather than not honor that agreement, they cut a check to the district to make the agreement whole. That speaks volumes to me about Aramark's commitment to the district. They have also promised to stick to the original budget they presented in the RFP with an even larger profit sharing. I appreciate that but also intend to make sure that they stick to that promise.

“Overall, I just didn't think it was prudent to change companies after only two years. Both Sodexo and Aramark are fine companies and both would do a good job. With Aramark, the employees are happy, our infrastructure for food service has improved and the district profits more from it. It's a win-win for me,” he said.

Domenic Fusco, the Ward 3 representative, echoed the sentiments of Gale.

“Two years ago we were forced to choose a food service provider that we did not choose. As a result of this I know I became extremely diligent in checking on the food service in the schools I visited. I would talk with school administrators, staff, parents, children and the workers themselves. I hardly heard a negative comment. Those I did hear, mostly from the kids, I would present to Aramark, either directly or through Central Administration, and received quick resolution to issues or answers to questions.

I then looked at the other things, Aramark spending money to upgrade equipment, upgrade cafeterias and its community involvement. All [were] areas of concern when we awarded the contract to them. I also felt two years was not a long enough sample size to pass judgment and look to replace them as a vendor.  

Finally, I did some research. I found since we were not required to go out to bid, the Committee is only required to go to bid every five years, as well as the clause we had in the RFP allowing the committee to reject any and all bids, I did not think it was time to change. This is by no means a negative reflection on the others who submitted bids, I just think it was not the proper time for a change,” he said.

Standing with Chairperson Ruggieri, Ward 2 representative Stephanie Culhane voted to keep the recommendation.

“I supported Sodexo because they were the highest scorer through the bidding process. Also, after careful review of Aramark’s numbers for the continuation of the contract, I don't feel that straying from the process would have been a wise fiscal decision for the district,” she said.

Citywide representative Michael Traficante was not present for the vote, as he was speaking at Cranston West honors night, but did say he would have voted to support Aramark because of the unconditional guarantee.

Ward 6 Representative and Chairman of the Wellness Committee Dan Wall voted to keep Aramark as well.

“The guarantee is a solid number. I haven’t heard anything but positive feedback about Aramark. I did have several phone calls from people who didn’t want to switch. I think keeping Aramark is the right decision,” he said.

As Ruggieri called for the School Committee to vote, it was 3-2 in favor of rejecting the Superintendent’s recommendation to bring Sodexo back to the district.

“We look forward to continuing our relationship with Aramark. Our students deserve to have the most wholesome, tasty and nutritious meals for their breakfast and lunch options," said Cranston Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse.

The employees of Aramark are very pleased with the outcome of the vote.

“I must say the management is always there to help with and questions or problems,” said Ashley Jeffers, first-year Aramark employee at Glen Hills Elementary School, “A big thank you to Renee, Tricia, Tina, Kelly and Anthony for working so hard to keep Aramark in Cranston schools.”

“We are proud of our partnership with Cranston Public Schools and look forward to continuing to serve nutritious meals throughout the district,” said Cutler.

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