During a recent lunch period, students move through the lunch line at Warrensburg High School. The Warrensburg Central School Board recently voted 4-3 to turn over their entire food service operation to Aramark Corporation, and the changeover is to occur Jan. 3. Aramark representatives pledged last week that they will be expanding the food options now available to students. Photo by Thom Randall
Due to a recent split decision by the local school board, Warrensburg Central School District will soon be turning over its kitchen and cafeteria operations to private enterprise.
The changeover, occurring as of Jan. 3, is anticipated to save taxpayer money, but cut cafeteria employee job benefits.
Taking over the cafeteria operations will be Aramark Corporation, which handles food operations in 50 school districts in New York State as well as colleges and various institutions across the nation and internationally.
Aramark regional managers were on site for several weeks in December reviewing operations of the Warrensburg cafeterias, which serves breakfast and lunch to about 785 students.
Warrensburg Superintendent of Schools Tim Lawson said that the switch to Aramark will save at least $50,000 annually — but food service workers’ hours are likely to be curtailed and most employee benefits will be slashed if not eliminated.
Aramark regional manager Noreen Czyzak, at the school last week, said that all present employees were offered jobs, and all had accepted the offer so far.
“We absolutely believe in retaining community members,” she said.
Aramark is rehiring for the cafeteria manager position held by Linda Bennett, who retired this month after 30 years of service.
The Warrensburg Central Schools Board of Education voted Dec. 3 to hire Aramark for a one-year contract, with a four-year renewal option. Next December, the school district and Aramark both must agree to renewing if the arrangement is to continue.
The board voted 4-3 on Dec. 3 to approve the switchover to Aramark. Voting in favor were board members Laura Danna, Beth Callahan, Linda Baker Marcella and Doug West. Voting against the changeover were Diane Angell, Paul Weick and John MicGlire.
Aramark was the only firm to submit a formal bid, although Chartwells Inc., which handles Fort Ann Central’s food service, initially showed interest in operating Warrensburg’s cafeteria and kitchen.
Early rumors circulating that the WCS cafeteria would begin, under the new regime, to serve prepackaged food were false, Czyzak said.
“We’ll be cooking all food on site like the existing cafeteria operation,” she said. “We’ll be looking to enhance the food operation and give the kids more options.”
Under the school district’s management, the cafeteria was offering hot meals as well as prepared salads and a sandwich option.
Czyzak said that Aramark might be expanding choices while making sure that all meals offered met U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional guidelines.
Lawson said the savings under Aramark’s management would be reaped by not having to pay full retirement and health insurance benefits, as swell as establishing “a shrunken pay scale.”
Warrensburg had employed nine food service workers, six of whom worked four hours or so per day. Three others work between 6 and 7 & 1/2 hours per day. Starting wage was $8.36 per hour, increasing to about $11 per hour after 20 years.
Lawson said that the cafeteria and kitchen employees would be retaining their accrued retirement benefits under the New York State Employee Retirement System, subject to their years of employment. The workers could access those benefits at qualifying retirement age, he said.
Warrensburg Central’s food service operation has cost about $400,000 per year, of which about $350,000 is reimbursed through state and federal aid, leaving a $50,000 average annual deficit for local citizens to shoulder through property taxes, Lawson said. The contract with Aramark specifies that they conduct the cafeteria and kitchen operation on a break-even basis without any local taxpayer subsidy.
Some area school districts with outsourced food operations have reported that their contracted firm has not only saved the taxpayer deficit, but paid a cash rebate back to the district.
Private enterprise is able to run the operation at a lower cost primarily by curtailing or eliminating employee benefits like state retirement benefits — now costing 21 percent of employees’ salary and generous health care coverage, school officials said.
Lawson said the public employees union representing the District’s present food service workers is asking for severance pay for the workers, but that the issue was under negotiation.
School administrators have noted that private firms not only save districts money, but they conduct rigorous food-safety training, and have specialists that oversee compliance with nutritional guidelines.