HOWELL – The Howell K-8 School District Board of Education has voted to hire an outside firm to assess the operation of the district’s Food Services Department.
At a meeting on May 23, board President Tim O’Brien, Vice President Mark Bonjavanni and board members Laurence Gurman, Denise Lowe, MaryRose Malley, Albert Miller, Jennifer Okerson and Ira Thor voted to hire Edvocate School Support Solutions. The firm will be paid $9,500 to evaluate the Food Services Department.
Malley said Edvocate “has helped several districts in New Jersey as well as other states to evaluate a food services department and assess whether continuing self operations or outsourcing would be in the best interest of the district.”
She said according to state law, a food services department must demonstrate an annual profit and not operate at a loss.
“We remain open to suggestions to alternatives to outsourcing. Our efforts over the past few years have just not brought us the success we hoped for,” Malley said.
Assistant Superintendent for Business Administration Ron Sanasac offered a brief history of the board’s efforts to stop the Food Services Department from operating at a loss.
Thor asked Sanasac if one of the challenges in operating a food services department is maintaining student participation in the cafeteria program, as he noted that many students bring lunch to school and do not purchase a meal.
Sanasac said that is an issue, adding, “Participation is the answer.”
He said student participation in breakfast is well below industry standards and that the percentage of students participating in lunch is about 14 points below the industry standard of about 29 percent participation. He said 43 percent participation would help the district break even.
Sanasac said some of the issue can be attributed to changes in school lunch standards. He said the addition of foods such as kale and whole wheat pizza have not been well received by children. If nothing changed in terms of student participation, the district would have to charge about $8 per lunch to break even, he said.
The district currently employs its own food services staff. Miller asked if those employees could or would be considered for employment if the district outsources its food services responsibilities to a company.
Sanasac said his commitment would be to ensure Howell’s food services employees would be interviewed before other individuals are hired by a company.
O’Brien said, “I think we are getting ahead of ourselves.” He echoed Sanasac in regard to the board’s commitment to the current staff, saying, “that is a given.”
Administrators said the department started losing money in 2013.
“Prior to (2013), we had been able to operate,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien asked if the timing of the downturn was coincidental with changes in federal regulations or if it was a direct correlation.
Sanasac said he believed the changes in school lunch regulations directly impacted the school district.
Resident Barbara Dixel asked what the board intends to save by possibly outsourcing the lunchroom responsibilities.
O’Brien said the board “is at a point of discovery. We are looking for options, we are looking for solutions, we are engaging (Edvocate) to explore different avenues.” He said the board would continue to work with employees on solutions.
Dixel said serving Howell students would be “just a job” to a company.
“They do not care, it’s just a job. They do it, they go home, they do not do it, they go home. The local people hired for this job take pride in their job, they are local family people, they have kids at these schools. Do not destroy a good thing,” Dixel said.
Lorraine Tesauro, a New Jersey Education Association field representative, said she understands the board’s fiscal responsibility, but said “one problem we fail to realize” is that the individuals who provide the services to the community are the dedicated employees.
“I welcome the opportunity to sit (with district officials) in looking at different options and perhaps sustaining (the current food services) program,” Tesauro said. “There is no better way to deal with an issue than to find out what is actually needed.”