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Cafeteria staff raise fears of outsourcing

SoVaNow.com / December 19, 2012
Two cafeteria workers, C.C. Nehme and Alfreda Newton, spoke up at Monday night’s meeting of the Mecklenburg County School Board to share their fears about losing their jobs, if the school division moves forward with a plan to outsource food service.

Nehme wanted to “hear from the horse’s mouth, are we being outsourced or not? If we are outsourced, will we receive the same pay and benefits? And if the issue is the quality of food, what kind of food can we get to make it better?”

The trustees fielded the questions following recent meetings between Superintendent of Schools James Thornton and cafeteria workers at county school. Thornton shared with school trustees his desire to find a way to address student concerns about the quality of food served in the cafeteria.

Nehme told the School Board Monday that Thornton told her and other workers that they would not lose their jobs, but she said rumors keep coming back up, and that has caused her some concern.

Newton, a 13-year food services employee, said she also fears losing her job. Before coming to the school division, she worked at a factory “that said the same things you are saying now, and two weeks after that the company shut the door.

“I have a family and grandchildren, and I don’t want them to go through hard times because I can’t find a job,” said Newton, a Bluestone Middle School employee.

She assured trustees that she and the other cafeteria staff “do the best we can do — we work hard for that little money we get to make sure the children have a good meal and a balanced meal.” She asked the trustees to try school lunches before concluding that there is a problem with the program.

While typically school board members do not respond to matters raised during the public comment period, Board chairman Robert Puryear called on Thornton to explain why the Central Office is considering outsourcing food services and how that would be handled.

Thornton said, “At the request of the students,” he was, in fact looking into outsourcing food services. “However, unlike the janitorial staff, this was not a cost-cutting measure; it was a way to improve the quality of the food. You will remain school system employees, receive the same pay, benefits, and VRS [Virginia Retirement System]. Only the management structure would change and recipes that are followed.”

Thornton agreed that food service workers do the best they can with the resources they have available. But, he said, “A large company has more buying power and resources, and they can add a nutritionist. If no one is affected and we can provide better food for our students, why would we not explore that avenue for our students?”

As a show of good faith, Thornton promised to share with the workers the draft request-for-proposal that spells out the conditions under which Mecklenburg County Schools would outsource its food services, including provisions that the number of employees will not decline and workers will remain school employees.

In other business at the regular monthly meeting of the School Board on Monday, trustee Dora Garner questioned the benefits of continuing language lessons using the Rosetta Stone program. She said she spoke with teachers, students, and parents: “They generally don’t like the way the program is being handled — students become bored, talkative, and engaged in other activity. The teachers are okay with its being a supplemental program, just not the main one.”

She added that students are not learning verb conjugation and their retention of foreign language is weak.

Board members Mary Hicks and Joan Wagstaff each suggested that the problem was not with the Rosetta Stone program but with the classroom instruction provided by the teachers. Wagstaff added, “before Rosetta Stone, our children were not learning how to speak a language and now they are.”

Thornton said his desire to introduce Rosetta Stone into the school system was based on student letters complaining about their inability to pass a college language waiver exam after taking three years of Spanish in high school.

He called the program a viable option for teaching foreign language, particularly in light of the division’s ongoing struggles to find quality language teachers.

After a discussion, the School Board voted 4-1 to renew the contract with Rosetta Stone. Garner dissented and Trustees Glenn Edwards and Dale Sturdifen abstained. Trustees Debra Smiley and Sandra Tanner were absent.

Also Monday, Thornton announced that after four weeks of negotiating, the school division has finally signed a contract with Blair Construction to begin building the three additions to the elementary schools in La Crosse, Chase City and Clarksville. He also received a quote of $2,800 from a reputable demolition contractor to tear down a house on property adjacent to the Chase City Elementary School. In light of the low cost for demolition, the Central Office is moving forward on the purchase of the property and expected to close next week, said the superintendent.

Thornton said he was not yet ready to speak on Governor Bob McDonnell’s plans pertaining to school funding issues, including a possible two percent pay raise for teachers and administrators. “We are waiting for the fine print.”

Before going into closed session to discuss a personnel matter, Thornton shared that work began over a month ago, with the sheriff and state troopers, “fine tuning our safety plans so that, God forbid, at least we have a plan in place in the event of a violent attack.”

“We are investigating every avenue, including the need to move to facilities that are conducive for 21st century learning.”

Sheriff Bobby Hawkins added that even though there was no threat or sign of violence, his deputies would be at each of the schools for the rest of the week. However, this assignment was not permanent.

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