Farmington cafeteria workers went before the Board of Education Monday night, making a last plea for their jobs on a night when the board considered two companies for outsourcing the district’s food service operations.
About a dozen women crowded into the meeting, held in the Farmington High School library, to speak during the board’s public comment period. They stood alongside an equal number of suited representatives of the food service companies.
Most explained how the children they serve are like family to them.
"At the cafeteria, I see almost all the children every day,” said Lori Manyak. “They come through the line and it’s important they see a friendly face. We all care about all the children. Most of us had children and grandchildren in the schools. I wish you could see how hard we work.”
She also said she wished the employees, who work for the school district, could have been given more notice to get their finances in order.
The workers were told in meetings with administrators about six weeks before the end of school that the district would be putting cafeteria services out to bid to explore cost-saving options. Over the past two years, administrators say, Farmington school cafeterias have lost $110,000 — $55,000 each year.
Director Janet Calabro had tried a number of different tactics to try to increase revenue, including abandoning a grant program that mandated healthy offerings, introducing new menu options and opening a store in the Farmington High School café. None have succeeded in reversing the loss.
Sharon Bonini, the manager at West Woods Upper Elementary grew up in Farmington, as did her parents, grandparents and children. She opened the West Woods cafeteria when the school was built 10 years ago and managed East Farms prior to that. She assured the board that with the right leadership, the program could be righted.
“I take great pride in my work for the town, schools and children I serve,” she said. “Private vendors often cut corners to increase profits in the meals they serve – we don’t do that. I don’t believe any private vendor will give our students better service than we do… I understand it’s impossible to keep running in a deficit but there are many changes we can make as a department… cutting hours, even maybe possibly a few positions.”
Her mother, Diane Turner, said she had spent 25 years at Farmington High School and the past 15 years at Irving A Robbins.
“Many of our kitchen employees also have children in the Farmington school system, which makes us more like family than just workers. The students are all our friends and our neighbors – we care deeply for them, like family – they’re not just business. At the last meeting …I was very impressed by how much the board cares for the students and takes care of them, I ask you don’t fail them by bringing in a food service place. Give us another chance,” Turner said.
Board Chairman Mary Grace Reed told the women the decision to look for an outside vendor was not a reflection on their work.
“You’ve absolutely not failed us. I don’t want you to walk out of this room for a moment and think the love you have given to our students and the concern and effort you put into the product you put before them is not meaningful,” Reed said, noting that the combined total of their years of services would be in the hundreds.
“We are in an extremely challenging situation with our budget. We cannot just go in and say to the Town Council that we’re going to have a $50,000 deficit in our cafeteria budget… They would not allow us to run a deficit and fund it.”
Reed said she had heard rumors that the board had already made a decision, which she said was absolutely untrue. She also said the board was not looking to lay blame for the deficit.
Superintendent Kathleen Greider explained that the problem was systemic and not the fault of the workers.
“We truly respect and honor your service here in Farmington,” Greider said. “I don’t ever want you to think this has anything to do with you as our employees. This is a system problem we had and certainly your employment is part of our deliberations. We have to find a way to honor all of you and remedy a system problem that we are facing. We can not run this program as it is currently being run. We have a fund balance that is being depleted and after this year we are in a crisis situation.”
Though the board met for several hours in executive session and heard from two food service companies, members did not make a decision, though they met until after midnight. A special meeting will be held, tentatively scheduled for June 26, to take action on the issue.