School board to seek new food, facilities pacts as unions rally against Aramark

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

NEW HAVEN — The school district announced Friday that it will go out to bid for food and facilities management, the same day that local unions held a rally against current provider Aramark.

The Board of Education has contracted with Philadelphia-based Aramark to manage its food and facility services since 1994. The contract has an option to extend through the 2008-09 school year, but officials said they will look for a new contract starting July 1.

At Friday night’s rally inside First & Summerfield United Methodist Church on College Street, union leaders called on the school district to “fire Aramark.” Speakers listed a variety of complaints against the company, saying they do not believe it has the interests of New Haven’s schoolchildren at heart.

“The food is crap,” said Cheryl Barbara, a cook at High School in the Community. “You walk into our coolers, and you’ll see chicken tenders, chicken nuggets, chicken patties. … Years ago, we used to cook from the heart.”

Attendees at the rally, who numbered in the hundreds, included members of Connecticut Council 4 Local 287, a custodians’ union; Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union Local 217, which serves school food staff; and Service Employees International Union. Members from other cities, including New York and Hartford, also spoke at the rally.

Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo said in a statement about the district’s decision to go out to bid that “by and large, (the district) has not had any complaints about Aramark.”

Mayo added, “We are sensitive to the concerns that have been raised and we will open up the process. … A key issue will be cost effectiveness.”

Kristine Grow, a spokeswoman for Aramark, said by phone Friday night that the company is providing high quality, nutritious food in the public schools. She added that the campaign against Aramark — which is part of a nationwide effort — has more to do with disagreements about how to enroll union members.

“The allegations that you’re hearing from the union, they’re not at all about New Haven public schools or about the children — they are more about the union’s agenda,” Grow said. “It’s really about organizing goals, about organizing workers into the union.”

Grow said that Aramark has invested money in the school system and the community over the years it has worked with the schools. She added that participation in the schools’ meal plans has risen year after year.

Will Clark, the school district’s chief operating officer, said by phone Friday that the Board of Education is going out to bid “to test the market and determine what the best services would be.” The district has two contracts with Aramark, for food and facilities, and both will go out to competitive bid.

“We’ve obviously extended their contracts and we’ve had a long relationship with them and that would not have been so had we not been satisfied with the overall services,” Clark said. “But again, these contracts contain the option to go out to bid and test the market for a reason.”

The national leaders of union Unite Here!, Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm, spoke at the rally. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-New Haven, read a statement supporting the effort.

Wilhelm said that the unions are engaging in a nationwide push against Aramark.

“This is wonderful coming together here in New Haven with all of these unions and all these community groups, but it’s just as important to join with people in Philadelphia and New York and Detroit and all over the world because we are dealing with a worldwide company,” he said.

Raynor added that the main issue from the union’s perspective is the deficit in the district’s food services budget.

“They produce deficits for schools and profits for themselves,” Raynor told the crowd. “They have lied to New Haven — they promised income.”

Grow, the Aramark spokeswoman, said that Aramark is working with New Haven to reduce the deficit, but could not comment further on the issue. She added that it is too early to know whether Aramark will bid for the contract, but “Aramark very much wants to continue its relationship with the New Haven public schools and we believe that our track record demonstrates that we are an excellent choice.”

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