The Board of Education is terminating its contract with Chartwell Food Service at the end of the school year and the 22 “lunch ladies” employed by Chartwell may be out of jobs. They will have to reapply for new jobs at various public schools under a different contractor.
They made their concerns known at last week’s meeting of the Board of Education’s Personnel and Finance Committee meeting, standing with signs as Renee DeAngeles, a 26-year Chartwell employee and Branford resident, addressed the committee.
“It’s my understanding that you don’t want to employ us any longer. There are 22 families and you’d like to eliminate our positions. I think that’s unfair,” DeAngeles said. “Why are you attacking a team of workers if you’re unhappy with the company?”
BOE chair Michael Krause responded, “The bottom line is that the state of Connecticut is requiring us to go out to bid for our food service contract…. As part of that process we made sure the cafeteria workers have to get interviewed by the potential new food service company, if that is what happens. Chartwell still has a right to go forward as well, but the cafeteria workers are not employees of the Branford school district.”
DeAngeles said that they’ve always been together. “Now it’s just over? What about our lives, our livelihood? You think that’s correct?”
Krause responded, after a moment of silence. “It’s the contract.”
Greg Jerolman, a parent, said that he has “no horse in the race,” but called for transparency. “I want to see things done the right way. I keep looking for that. It’s not there.”
BOE member John Prins said, “It’s not a matter of us not wanting you.” He added that it was a business-to-business relationship and given Chartwell’s performance, the state said “fix it.”
“Your performance has been nothing but laudable,” said Schools Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez. He said that the request for proposals has been done and he will ensure that everyone will be interviewed. “The issue is not performance… it’s a business relationship.”
Chief Financial Officer Don Neel had said at Feb. 21 meeting of the Board of Education’s Personnel and Finance Committee that Chartwell had been a state subsidy that is losing money and the district is required to make up the deficit out of its general fund budget (although it would not create a deficit).
Neel said that for 2016-17, the program ran a deficit of $127,443, broken down as follows: (1) Guaranteed subsidy (“not to exceed” contractually planned loss) of $49,486; (2) Chartwells’ management fee of $15,000 (only paid if the loss exceeds Guaranteed Subsidy); (3) Balance of loss subsidized by the Board of Education’s general fund operating budget $62,957. He added that because Chartwells gave up its management fee, the amount of subsidy required from the BOE was $112,443, not the entire $127,443 deficit.
Because the program was on track to lose a significant amount of money this year (the amount is not yet known), Neel elected not to renew the contract; the state also required that the food service contract go out to bid next year.
The lunch ladies are represented in Branford by Local 217. They are all Branford residents; the longest has been employed for 30 years. They recently signed a letter urging the Board of Education to include their contract with the RFP “so that we may continue to do our work with pride and dignity. Being part of the RFP will ensure that we can maintain our income and our livelihoods.”
Many have work schedules that coincide with their kids’ schedules.
“I’ve worked feeding Branford school children for 30 years. If I lose my job now, who is going to hire me at my age? I’m losing sleep at night thinking about what is going to happen if I lose my healthcare,” said Fran Amarante in a statement. She works at John B. Sliney Elementary School. She continued, “I was born and raised in Branford, and this job has supplied me with good, affordable healthcare and much needed income to support my family. The Board of Education wants to replace us and hire new workers at poverty wages with no benefits. Is this what we want for our town? Is this what our children deserve? This just isn’t right – how can they just plan to fire 22 Branford women, 22 of their neighbors?”
Another Sliney worker, Jackie Crescenzi, wrote, “I’m confused why, after nearly 19 years here, I should have to reapply for my job. I’ve fed thousands of Branford children for much longer than Hernandez has been superintendent. It’s insulting that I am being told I can reapply for my job, but no assurances that I’ll get it. Does that seem right?”
According to Ian Dunn, communications director for the union, Schools Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez said the town will interview the employees so they can reapply for their jobs.
Dunn said that the current model is that when food services come in, they look to operate at a profit and pay poverty wages with no health care. He questioned that a 30-year employee who does a good job and receives benefits (but is older and may have health issues) would be hired under those circumstances. He added that the union has provided a good standard of living and a good healthcare plan.
He cited the town of Shelton, which experienced a similar situation when school food service provider changed from Sodexo to Whitsons and offered higher insurance costs and minimum wage salaries to new employees. The expectation was the new service would offer similar wages and benefits. It did not.
The lunch ladies plan to leaflet the town to bring awareness to their situation. They just want the new service to keep the same people.
“We think Branford will do the right thing,” said Dunn.