To Oursource or Not to Outsource?

This is a tough one! From a purely business perspective outsourcing makes a lot of sense but from a people perspective it is less clear- cut and much more difficult to make.

First let me say that we have an amazing staff of employees that work in our cafeterias and within our district. These are dedicated, caring and helpful women who love their work and our students. That has never been a question  and is not a reason that the district decided to investigate outsourcing. In fact, when we developed the RFP, we required any company wishing to bid on the project to agree to hire our existing staff before hiring any other workers. This decision was in recognition of and out of respect for our staff and the work they do every day.

The district has been talking about investigating this  idea for the past couple of years but decided to move ahead with investigating now because the current employment contract with this group of employees  ends this June 2017.  We did not want to start this process in the middle of the contract so we waited to prepare an RFP until this past January. There are three reasons for our exploration .

1. The program has not been financially solvent. To be fair, the changes to the nutrition guidelines at the federal and state have not helped but our hope is that the program can be self -sustaining and profitable so that there  is money to make capital and program improvements.

2. The participation rates at both schools are low. The monthly average is 37% and our meals to labor ratio costs are higher than called for in the standards.  This is why Whitsons recommends operating with two less part -time people.

3. We want to ensure that the operation of our program is as efficient, effective and as well -regarded by the customer as possible. We have a need for marketing and promotion of our program and companies like Whitsons have designated staff to  handle these areas.

In December/ January , we developed and posted a request for proposal ( RFP)  from interested vendors based on the goals for our program. Initially five companies expressed interest but one company Whitsons completed all stages of the process . Over the course of the last couple of months, the  School Committee, Director of Finance and Operations Suzanne Sutherland and I have been pouring over details of their proposal, asking clarifying questions, conducting site visits to other districts that contract with Whitsons and visiting our own cafeterias for lunch. The goal was to see the operations in action in different districts , sample the food and talk to the staffs because the reality is that any company can promote their services on paper but may not deliver them in action. I can personally say that these visits confirmed for me that Whitsons  is a solid and reputable company.  Both districts we observed reported that their program is now profitable and successful. As I said in the start of this post, there are strong  arguments to be made on  the business side of this decision and if it wasn’t for the potential impact to our staff, I think this decision is a no-brainer.

There have been many comments made and opinions expressed in social media about this issue and that is understandable . While the Special  School Committee meeting at the Town Hall tomorrow night at 7:00 PM will be a chance to hear specifics, I think it is important to clarify some of the facts of the proposal that the School Committee will be considering.

1. All current full -time union employees would be offered employment by Whitsons unless they choose not to sign on with the company. There are two part- time non-union employees who would be laid off because the company uses a  standard meals to labor ratio to determine their staffing pattern. In addition, the secretary/ clerk for the department would be laid off and her duties would be redirected as per their management structure. Any time staff members leave the district by their choice of ours, it painful and difficult for all of us because it is a loss to our school community.

2. Assuming our employees wanted to join Whitsons, the district studied the comparison of employee benefits in Georgetown with those offered through Whitsons. While there are clearly some differences, the employees would retain their current rate of pay, be eligible for health and vacation time ( after the first year  ) and be able to collect unemployment during times when they are not scheduled to work which is a benefit they do not currently enjoy.  Our interpretation is that the fringe benefits are competitive and comparable although they are definitely not exactly  the same regarding laid time off.  We specified in the RFP the specifics  we wanted to see provided for our employees and Whitson’s proposal includes those . One of the issues that was raised involves retirement benefits. Whitsons employees are not unionized and they can not remain in the state’s retirement program working for a private company.  They would not lose the money they have put into the system but they would not be able to add to it.

I know that the conversation tomorrow evening will be difficult. It always is when people and emotions are involved.  The School Committee has a very difficult decision to make and I hope everyone attending the meeting understands and appreciates that fact. I am not sure how the vote will go but I know that the School Committee has done their homework and their due diligence and they will do what they think is best for the district and our students as they always do.

There are clearly pros and cons and potential advantages and disadvantages to outsourcing or not outsourcing. Whichever  way this goes, we will do everything possible to meet our goals which are to provide the best quality  meal program we can for our students, increase our participation  rates and improve the financial solvency of the program.