The first thing she felt was betrayal.
This was after Sonja first heard that the Fort Worth school district is considering privatizing cafeteria workers like herself. Speaking through a translator, Sonja – who wishes to remain anonymous because she fears backlash from her superiors – said she enjoys cafeteria work and being around children. After 15 years with the school district, she now worries about her job, which currently offers health benefits. She doesn’t believe school district administrators when they tell her that outsourcing school district food services won’t affect her job.
News of the potential outsourcing of cafeteria services spread last September after a memorandum from Fort Worth school district’s Policy and Planning Department was released to the school district’s nutrition services managers. A confidential source provided the Weekly with a copy. The two-page memo answered six questions that might be raised as the school district explored outsourcing options. The motivation for exploring contracting cafeteria services, the memo said, is to become “more efficient and effective.” The document goes on to state that “any campus food service worker in good standing must be retained by the food service management company and will remain a FWISD employee.”
Clint Bond, Fort Worth school district spokesperson, told me in an email that the school district is currently “conducting an internal analysis of all services and soliciting opinions of [child nutrition services] workers, as well as students and teachers,” with the aim of weighing the potential benefits of using an outside contractor for future food services.
Many Texas school districts are making difficult budget decisions as state legislators continue to underfund public education. Last year, the Texas arm of the National Education Association said state per-student spending declined by $143 between the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years. Nationally, Texas ranks 36th in public school funding. The state public school system is still reeling from a $5.4 billion cut in 2011 that was never restored. A 2016 State Supreme Court ruling found Texas’ school funding to be flawed but constitutional.
In the current 2017-2018 budget, Fort Worth school district’s Food Service Fund is projected to run a deficit of $7,691,795, after funds from local, state, and federal revenues are accounted for, Bond said. The school district must make up that difference, which supports around 75,000 students who qualify, based on financial need, for free or reduced meals. Last year, the school district provided 31,500 breakfasts and 61,500 lunches daily.
Luis Castillo, president of the local chapter of the Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE), said that cafeteria contractors often cut staff after a year or two.
“You are dealing with a contractor who wants to increase the profit margin,” he said.
Bond said that Fort Worth school district superintendent Kent Scribner has assured cafeteria workers that the school district intentions are to keep all the current employees and to fill the vacancies that exist.
Last October, several of the school district’s 1,046 cafeteria workers spoke at the school board meeting, voicing concerns over the job security.
“We’ve made a request for a cost analysis,” Castillo said, referring to data that compare the cost of services between district staff and potential outside bidders. “We want to know what’s keeping [current cafeteria workers] from being cost-effective. If that’s the school district’s goal, how can we make it cost-effective now? We really don’t know what we have until we look at the numbers.”
Privatizing cafeteria services is a rare move in Texas, especially for a large school district like Fort Worth. While a handful of nearby suburban school districts contract for food services, Mark Loeffler, communications director for the Texas Department of Agriculture, said few “major urban school districts contract out.” Statewide, 167 out of Texas’ 1,023 independent school districts use outside contractors for food services, Loeffler said.
A growing body of research points toward privatization in the public sector as a cause of increasing financial inequality. A 2016 report by In the Public Interest, a research and policy nonprofit that promotes “the common good,” found that “privatization increases income inequality through the decline of contracted workers’ wages and benefits. When governments directly provide a service, they often provide living wages and decent benefits to workers. When private companies take control, they often slash wages and benefits in an attempt to cut labor costs, replacing stable, middle-class jobs with poverty-level jobs.”
The Houston school district recently returned to providing its own food services. Houston school district press secretary Tracy Clemons told me in an email that his school district made the switch after 20 years because “we felt as though now is the time for the district to take charge of feeding our students. The change is about food quality. We’re looking at changing the way we feed our students. We will focus on delivering good food that is healthy and help to fuel our scholars.”
Throughout the 20-year contract with food services provider Aramark, she said, the employees at the school level were “always” employees of the Houston school district.
Castillo still has several unanswered questions that he emailed to the Fort Worth school district several months ago. His biggest concern with outsourcing is loss of control over who is working.
The school district would “no longer be in charge of the personnel,” he said. “Who knows whom they will hire. It’s like bringing a stranger into your family’s kitchen.”
Bond said that as “faithful stewards” of public funds, the school district must look at “all options” when it comes to funding food services. The results of the ongoing cost-benefit analysis of contracted food services, he said, will most likely be presented to the school board by the end of April.