Florida district wants to privatize food service

HENDRY COUNTY, Fla. — The mood was somber as Hendry County School District’s lunch ladies streamed from the board meeting Tuesday evening. Many were reeling from what they felt as a blow from their bosses - a 3-1 vote to privatize the school lunch rooms. Dwayne Brown cast the only nay vote.

There was no dispute over the basic problem - Hendry County students are not eating the school-made lunches and a huge amount of food is being wasted. Looking for a solution, Superintendent of Schools Paul Puletti began the process of seeking bids from private companies to take over the food service. The school board studied and compared the four proposals with a possible in-house solution.

Speaker after speaker pleaded with the board not to privatize, voicing their concerns, including the feeling that they were not included in searching for a solution. One of their major concerns is the change in their retirement plan.

After the vote, Superintendent Puletti said, “When all is said and done, after the transition is complete and people learn more about this they’ll find out they’re not as bad off as they think they are. Actually they’re better off than under our operation. Time will tell They’re upset over the unknown. If they show up and do their work they’ll have no worries.

In his comments, Chief Financial Officer Michael Yanosik first identified the problem as a “meals consumed problem,” then listed the potential solutions: privatized food service or an in-house plan.

He compared school lunch participation rates from 2013-14 to 2014-15 from a prepared charts he provided the board members. He noted that an in-house possibility was a viable option that would require the board to hire a director of food service and possibly an assistant, a dietitian and new equipment as well as set guidelines The board would need HESPA’s support with personnel issues, he added.

Hendry Educational Support Personnel Association (HESPA) President Debbie Steelman presented a petition with over 700 signatures against privatization and asked the board to “give it a lot of thought” before voting.

Superintendent Paul Puletti explained that the board reviewed the possibilities for four months and told the audience that the workers had been on an unnecessary emotional roller coaster. He said the board never intended to cost any jobs; that the problem is not about money or the quality of workers. It’s about service to students.