3/25/08

AFSCME school workers pan privatization

More than a dozen school cafeteria workers — many wearing green AFSCME union T-shirts with gold lettering — gathered at last night's School Committee meeting in Salem (MA) and said they worry for their jobs if the school lunch program is privatized. Three private companies have submitted proposals to take over the school food program, which has been running a deficit for several years. Superintendent William Cameron Jr. said the proposals will be reviewed, and no decisions have been made.

School lunch workers and a small group of parents have publicly opposed such a move, saying it will cut jobs, lower food quality and decrease personalized service for the students.

"All of us are very hardworking, and we know every kid — and their allergies," said Jyll Hudson, a "lunch lady" at Salem High School. "It's not our fault that there are financial problems in the city.

"I'm the (health) benefit holder in my family, so this is a huge, huge worry for me," said Hudson, an eight-year employee of the schools.

The school cafeteria workers, who are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, arrived early to last night's meeting at Collins Middle School and talked about changes to the lunch program that they believe created some of the problems.

"They closed the snack bar and put in vending machines," said Sue Coiro, who has been a Salem lunch worker for 14 years. "I've seen all these changes and all these food directors."

Joan Pelletier, who has been a Salem lunch worker for 26 years, said the food service program used to be a money maker.

"Now they've gone the other way, penny-pinching so the meals are boring and hardly meet nutritional standards," Pelletier said.

Already, some improvements are underway, they said.

"The vending machines just got taken out at the high school, and we reopened the snack bar," Hudson said, "and today I made $500. If we had been doing that the last few years. ... It's just frustrating."

Cameron announced in early February that the schools sent out a request for proposals to outsource the food program, and possibly custodial services, as well. The request was later revised to give preference to companies that will hire the existing school lunch employees.

Food service workers say a private company would pay less. They said they currently make roughly $15 an hour.

"We have families to support, too," Hudson said.

A small parent group has tried to propose alternatives and visited Cambridge last week to learn about its school lunch program, which uses grants and farm-to-school programs. They invited all members of the School Committee to join them; member Jim Fleming went with them.

"We're hoping it's not over and we're not giving up yet," said parent Cindy Theriault, whose daughter attends Horace Mann Laboratory School. "There are grants out there no one is applying for and other ways to promote the lunch program."

The Salem schools have faced a $5.8 million midyear budget deficit, and 33 school aides, clerical workers, custodians and other employees were laid off in February. Already, the School Committee is anticipating tight funds for next year's budget, so Cameron said the schools need to look into saving money in every way possible.

"We can't make informed decisions without being informed," Cameron said when he announced the move in February to seek proposals.

"These are your front-line people," City Councilor-at-large Tom Furey said of cafeteria workers and custodians. He spoke at last night's School Committee meeting during the public comment period. "Those are the people you want to keep, even in the midst of a crisis."

Aramark, Whitsons and Chartwells (Compass Group) were the three companies to submit proposals.

(salemnews.com)

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