After several years of lost revenue, SAU 9 Food Service Program Director Brian Coffey's contract was not renewed by the district. Now an ad hoc panel is mulling outsourcing the entire program. (JAMIE GEMMITI FILE PHOTO)

CONWAY — The Conway School Board on Monday gave an ad hoc committee the green light to explore outsourcing the school district's food service program in order to get a better handle on costs.

The food service program is projected to operate at a loss in 2018-19 for the third year in a row.

Mark Hounsell, chair of the 2-week-old committee, noted at Monday's school board meeting: “We are in a hole. The No. 1 rule of holes is when you find yourself in one, stop digging! We have budgeted losing $200,000 in our school food service by June 30, 2019. That is severe, and it is not acceptable."

Hounsell said the 10-member committee held its first meeting May 8. It is made up by Hounsell, along with fellow school board member Jessica Whitelaw, the vice chair, and fellow board member Courtney Burke. Others include School Superintendent Kevin Richard, Assistant Superintendent Kadie Wilson, Kennett Middle School Principal Rick Biche, recent Kennett High graduate Rachel Rice, current KHS junior Sullivan Gaudreault, former school board member Bill Aughton and middle school food service director Steven Brecker.

Hounsell shared with the school board an alarming graphic on student participation in the breakfast and lunch programs at the high school, middle school and three elementary schools.

For instance, in 2013, the district provided a daily average of 929 breakfasts and lunches. Today, that average is 529 per day, Hounsell said.

"The food service operation is in need of repair," he said. "There is no one simple solution. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”

He added: “We’re losing revenue. Costs are what costs are. One of the things that we want to do is look at everything," including exploring the possibility of privatizing the food service operations.”

Hounsell said Wilson had written a Request For Proposal, which the Department of Education approved Monday, allowing the committee to explore private food service options. He asked the board to support the motion to allow the committee to send out an RFP.

“There are two reasons we need to do this,” he explained. “There is a provision with the AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) contract that if the board decides to even explore (outsourcing the food service) there has to be notification to the union and that kicks in a provision where they can also participate in offering to compete (for the contract).”

Hounsell said taking this step doesn't reflect on the competence of school staff.

The RFP has to be aligned with state and federal regulations.

“We’re so certain that this doesn’t have anything to do with bad performance by the staff that we added this note onto the RFP,” Hounsell said.

“‘It is the desire of the Conway School District for employees to continue to receive quality wages and benefits and be in a safe, healthy workplace,'" he read.

"With the RFP comes an understanding that we want to fix this but not at all costs.”

The board voted 7-0 to “authorize the superintendent to explore the privatization of the school district’s food service operations and to direct the issuance of a request for proposal for that purpose.”

Board member Joe Mosca asked whether the food service program was set up to operate at a loss. He also asked for the current cost of food service staff as well as that of the entire program.

Hounsell said food service expenses for 2018-19 are roughly $829,000, while projected revenue is only $629,000.

“Free and reduced lunch reimbursement is part of that revenue, but with a drop in participation comes a drop in revenue,” he said. “I’m not making any claims here, but it’s almost like we may have to spend our way out of this problem. We may have to spend money to make money.”

Hounsell said there is a “hierarchical order” to what the committee hopes to accomplish.

“First, more participation by children all across the economic spectrum. Second, recovery of the negative $200K budgeted deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019. Third, schoolhouse cultural impacts. It is critical that each building principal is in an authoritative position that allows her/his ability to monitor all aspects of the school and its personnel (public or private). Fourth, employees' interest.”

Board member Randy Davison said a number of districts are outsourcing their food service programs.

“We have great employees and staff in that department,” he said. “The concern is where do we stop the Conway taxpayer from subsidizing the program? That’s what it seems like because we have to keep continually using funds (to cover deficits).”

If the district were to outsource, Davison wants to make sure current employees have the right of first refusal for positions.

“We have valued people who need to be valued,” he said.

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