MADISON — Cynthia Kilbride, the cook manager at Daniel Hand High School, remembers the moment she knew she was in the right profession.
“The kids would come down for lunch … and I’d go out into the hall and say, ‘All aboard the lunch train!’ And they would all stop, and be quiet, and line up nicely and come quietly into the kitchen and get their lunch. And when I handed them their tray, we would both go, ‘Woo woo!’” Kilbride said. “That’s when I fell in love with my job.”
But now that the Board of Education has decided to outsource the district’s food services, Kilbride said, she fears many lunch staff will have to find new jobs and health care plans.
About half a dozen lunch staff shared the same fears on Tuesday, when the school board voted to approve a subcontract in an effort to reduce costs.
Kilbride said she wasn’t sure that Chartwells, the company floated as the most likely subcontractor, was a company she wanted to work for.
“When jobs are outsourced, you don’t know what will be brought into the schools and how they will interact with your children. And I can assure you that they won’t be as caring and involved as our staff is,” she said.
A provision in the food service workers’ current contract allows the district to subcontract the service beginning in mid-2024, as long as the district gives a six-month notice to workers. Superintendent Craig Cooke told CT Examiner the subcontractor has not yet been finalized.
Ed Kosinski, the national representative for NAGE, which represents the district’s food service workers in collective bargaining, told the Board of Education that the contract provision was put in place during a time when food services were losing money. A federal mandate under the National School Lunch Program had limited the types of food that schools could serve, he said, resulting in “less attractive” options for students.
But after the mandate was lifted, Kosinski said, the lunch staff assured him they would improve sales.
Last year, the district’s loss amounted to $23,000, which Kosinki described to CT Examiner as “miniscule.”
“We are requesting that you allow these ladies to stay, negotiate a new contract with NAGE, and let them keep their jobs, and not go to subcontracting,” Kosinski told the board.
But Cooke told CT Examiner that the district stopped participating in the National School Lunch Program in 2016, prior to negotiating the workers’ contract. Instead, he said, the problem was a drop in enrollment over the last 10 years.
“I think if everything was able to be sustainable, we wouldn’t be in this position,” Cooke told the board. “If we were close to breaking even and we were able to fill all the positions and things were working well, we wouldn’t be in this position.”
‘I’ll have no choice but to leave’
Lunch staff approached the board during public comment, describing their devotion to the district and children, as well as their fears about potentially losing benefits or having their salaries cut.
Susanna Bakula, the cook manager at Polson Middle School, told school board members that she has arrived early and stayed late at work each day for the past three years.
“To say I love my job would be an understatement,” she said.
For Bakula, a single mother of three, the job is also a critical source of income. She said she works a second full-time job during the week, and three additional jobs on the weekend just to meet her mortgage payments.
Bakula said she doesn’t know if she can continue working at Polson under a subcontractor.
“The town says that they are negotiating with Chartwells, but they don’t tell us if we’re going to maintain our pay. The benefits and otherwise,” she said. “If Chartwells takes over and we don’t assume the same rates of pay and benefits, I’ll have no choice but to leave at the end of the year.”
Bernadette Maxted, who has worked in the district for 19 years, said she made bagged breakfasts and lunches for students during the pandemic.
“To those who needed them, it was a scary time,” she said. “I love my job and I love our kids. We do form relationships with them. We know their names, their orders, what colleges they applied for. They talk to us when they are stressed out about exams and we get excited for them at prom time and graduation.”
Now, Maxted said, she’s afraid to lose her family’s health insurance.
Under the contract, current food service workers have the right to interview with the new subcontracting company if they choose. But there’s no guarantee the company will rehire them, or that they won’t be rehired and then laid off, according to Kosinski.
“They can hire them on a Tuesday, turn around, and lay them all off on Wednesday,” she said.
Cooke told CT Examiner that the subcontractor is required to hire the current workers, but it’s unclear what their salaries or benefits would be.
The decision to hire a subcontractor, he added, also came about because the district could not find food service workers to fill open positions. He noted that Polson, in particular, was short-staffed and had three open positions.
“Our hope is that an outside provider can provide more continuous, potentially 12-month employment or advancement opportunities and be able to fill the positions,” he said.
Cooke also criticized the idea that the subcontractor would hire current workers only to fire them the next day as “absolutely ridiculous.”
“That’s irresponsible. There’s no way we could operate the food service program if that would happen. We wouldn’t let that happen,” he said.
He noted that the workforce shortage made it unlikely that the company would decrease salaries significantly.
“If we can’t fill the positions right now at the amount of money that we’re offering, it’s very unlikely that an outside provider could come in and offer less money and be able to fill the positions,” Cooke said.
Board Chair Seth Klaskin said he appreciated the food service workers, but recognized the financial need to hire an outside company.
“We’re in a situation where our health insurance — and we’re self-insured for health insurance — our health insurance alone went up about 10 percent last year. It was expected to go up, I think, at least 9.6 percent this year,” he said.
Klaskin also claimed the lunch staff should have known that outsourcing was imminent, given the terms of their contract signed two years ago.
“I certainly understand that the fact that this cliff is getting closer makes it a more emotional event for people,” Klaskin said. “But at the same time, I don’t think it could fairly be stated that there was no warning, that this is a surprise, or that this isn’t a sensible or business decision on behalf of the Board of Education.”
Board member Christine Maisano disagreed, explaining that the move would only save the school district $185,000 next year because costs in other areas are expected to rise.
“I feel like at some time, you have to look at dedication, and you have to look at community, and you have to look at the work that these women have done,” Maisano said. “Sometimes it’s not about the bottom line. It’s not. It’s about lives and livelihood and this economy. People that I know that are well-educated with multiple degrees are not working. The economy is not good. I feel for them.”
The recent approval of a multimillion-dollar school building project, and the fact that the district returned about $200,000 to the town from its budget last year, also fueled skepticism about the district’s financial constraints.
“So Madison residents can absorb in their taxes paying for a multimillion-dollar new school, but they can’t afford to support the cafeteria staff that’s making just above minimum wage?” said Peg Kramer-Oliwa, a food service worker and Madison resident.
The uncertainty surrounding who will be the subcontractor has been “very unsettling,” she added.
“We’re supposed to stay committed to them, but they’re not committed to us,” Kramer-Oliwa said. “Is that fair?”