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2010 may be the last year for South cafeteria staff

By Alex Gershanov
Published: June 2010

The debate over cafeteria privatization, raging for nearly five months, has yet to produce any definitive answers for the Newton Public Schools (NPS) cafeteria staff.

By the end of the year, South’s 12 cafeteria staff may lose their jobs.

Chair of the Negotiating Committee, Jonathan Yeo, says that the School Committee hopes to see new developments within the next two weeks.

The question of privatization first arose when the city began looking for ways to minimize costs and maximize worker efficiency. Their efforts began after the economic recession caused a financial crisis in Newton.

To remedy the situation, the School Committee passed a tighter budget, seeking to reorganize certain aspects of Newton schools, particularly the food distribution program.

The NPS cafeterias cumulatively run at a deficit of nearly $1 million a year. The new budget aims to remove this monetary strain from the school system.

“The program needs to be reduced by $520,000 to meet the budget, Yeo said. “So one way or another, we will do that – either by reaching an agreement with the union to outsource or reorganize the program or reducing staff and costs.

Recently, the city released a Request for Proposal that allowed potential private food service providers to bid for the job.

According to School Committee member Reenie Murphy, the School Commitee is considering four companies for privatization: Chartwells, Aramark, Whitson, and Sodexo. Each is a well-known, national food service provider.

Neither the School Committee nor the union representing the city’s cafeteria workers are permitted to reveal the details of any negotiations. Thus, the cafeteria workers are kept virtually in the dark and unaware of whether or not they will have a job come September.

Some of South’s cafeteria staff have worked at South for 30 years, and most are mothers.

Yeo mentioned that despite the union’s efforts to publicize the struggle, there has not been much support one way or the other from the community.

“We get comments on many issues: class size, security cameras, whatever, he said. “But we have had very few comments on this issue.

In the considerations of the School Committee to privatize the food distribution program, several questions arise.

Some students are concerned that a completely new staff–one that does not necessarily have any connection or dedication to the school–may have a negative impact on the school in terms of attitude.

The current workers have developed friendly relationships with South’s students, and it is unclear how an entirely new staff, likely to be paid minimum wage to meet the budget requirements, will interact with the student body.

It is also uncertain whether or not privatization will be beneficial at all.

Head Custodian Ernie Peltier, who has dealt with privatization struggles before, explained that often, private companies offer low introductory prices and then raise them over the years.

Yeo said that such would not be the case, however, because he is confident that a well-written contract would prevent that.

It is still too early to tell what decision will be made, according to Yeo, but privatization is not the only solution. He says that there is a chance that the current food program can be reorganized, but that it would still most likely require staff cuts.

How severe those staff cuts would be, Yeo says, is too soon to tell.

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