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Curmudgeon's Corner: Food service contract has little to do with 'the kids' (OPINION)

July 3, 2012

The National Education Association Rhode Island sent a postcard to its members before the school committee work session on June 12. The postcard urged attendance at the session to save the jobs of the food service workers and custodians. The former jobs are not in jeopardy at this time so apparently they were included to incite attendance.
Union members’ comments followed three main themes all of which appeared to be NEA talking points. Nancy Ferenko, president-elect of the Employee Support Personnel, said their bargaining unit represented 210 members. Included are 30 custodians and 21 food service workers or almost 25 percent of the membership. No wonder the union is concerned about outsourcing cafeteria operations and building maintenance.
According to Ms. Ferenko and several speakers after her, the low wages and inferior benefits offered by private vendors would result in high employee turnover. What that opinion is based on was left unsaid.
The stated implication, however, was that undesirables would be prowling our hallways. Conveniently unmentioned was the incident this school year in which a union custodian was charged with making bomb threats in one of the district’s schools.
The second theme was that the custodians and cafeteria workers do more than clean the buildings and serve food. Ms. Ferenko stated that cafeteria workers know “their” students “and make sure no one goes hungry.” The current ESP president, Sandy Blankenship, alleged that these employees “know ‘their’ students and listen to them.”
Three teachers from Fishing Cove School offered testimony regarding how their custodians “are friends to the students.” Another noted a situation in which a custodian counseled “a visibly upset female student.”
I began to wonder when they had time to clean the schools and serve the food and why Superintendent Auger says the district needs more social workers since the custodians and food service employees spend so much time counseling and consoling students.
Another speaker alleged incorrectly that although the outside vendor had agreed to interview the district’s custodians, no one was assured of a job. Even if a job was offered, it was alleged that the pay and benefits would be less and some workers would be forced “into poverty.”
Ms. Blakenship said that Jamestown’s cafeteria vendor is losing $100,000 this year. She didn’t compare that to the projected loss of $184,000 for North Kingstown’s food service operation which is the last school district in-house food service in the state.
In 1998 the school committee commissioned a review of the district’s operations by the firm of Bacon & Edge. Their report was updated in 2006.
The consultants noted that “All seemed well in June of 2004” because the North Kingstown cafeteria losses were masked by the fact that the then-supervisor of food service was also running Jamestown’s “which she did at a profit to [NK].” In fact, the department had run at a loss for at least three years.
The report concluded that “the Food Service Department will operate at a significant loss for the foreseeable future” because “these food service workers receive benefits not normally available to part-time employees.” The consultant’s conclusion: “The Food Services Department can not survive under this excess labor weight.”
In the years following this report, the food services operation has always operated at a loss. During the six years I served on the town’s audit committee, the independent auditors cited concern over these losses. On a couple of occasions, we heard from the director of food services and union members that they would “break even” because of a reorganization or change of menu or providing food service to the senior center etc.
However, losses since FY 2004 through the projected loss this year total $1,091,422. All this to protect less than two dozen part-time jobs, most of which are about three hours a day for 180 days a year and that enjoy a full-time benefits package.
Are we to believe the other 35 districts have outsourced their cafeteria department because they wanted to eliminate part-time jobs and lose money? I am reminded of the story of the proud mother of the drum major in the high school marching band. As the Memorial Day parade marched by, she exclaimed, “Doesn’t Johnny look wonderful! It’s too band the rest of the band is out of step.”
Last Saturday Jane Argentieri, assistant executive director of NEARI, sent a letter to the ESP membership urging them to attend the special school committee business meeting on Monday to protest the vote on outsourcing the custodians’ jobs.
The letter decried the possibility that building maintenance would be turned over to a (gasp) “for profit company” thus adhering to the labor union philosophy that profits are inherently evil. I guess this follows their belief that somehow profits should go to the workers in the form of higher wages.
The letter also alleges that the custodians “are members of a workforce that educates the whole child, and go above and beyond for our children!” I have to wonder how the second-shift custodians accomplish these lofty goals.
The citizens’ comments Monday evening reflected the same three union talking points.
Please, spare us the “it’s about the children” routine. Labor unions exist to protect the jobs of their members and negotiate the best wage, benefits and working conditions package for them. When it comes down to eliminating either a class, program, sport or a union job, the union will go for the job every time. They have to; it’s why their members pay dues.
A few years ago, I attended a joint budget presentation by the town manager and then-superintendent of schools Phil Thornton. The subject of consolidating the town and school district maintenance departments came up. Town Manager Embury pointed out that the school maintenance personnel’s pay scale is about 20 percent higher than the municipal workers who are also represented by a union. This makes consolidation unlikely.
My conclusion was that the school janitors have ridden the coattails of the teachers’ union contracts for many years. Apparently, the town’s building maintenance employees have not been driven into poverty by their union contractual pay scale.
During the meeting, I overheard Ms. Argentieri say the union is going to court where the matter will be decided. In the meantime, Saturday is the last day of work for 26 school custodians. Unless, that is, they decide to accept the job offered by the building maintenance vendor.

n A closing observation by late-night comedian Jay Leno: “President Obama is allowing certain immigrants to remain in this country.  But, there is an age requirement: You have to be old enough to vote in November.”

Richard August is a North Kingstown resident and a regular contributor to the Standard Times. He served for six years on North Kingstown’s Audit Committee and was its chairman for the last two. His opinions are his own.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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