After last week’s emotionally charged public hearing before the Board of Aldermen — which was attended by over 200 public-school cooks, custodians, teachers, parents and students — Aramark may soon be leaving town. But the company isn’t going without a fight.
As the city prepares to begin interviews with bidders for the New Haven Public Schools food-service contract, the schools’ custodial and food-service workers unions have upped their efforts to push for the city to reject Aramark’s bid for a contract renewal, although the company has become more vocal in countering these charges in the last week. Aramark currently manages the food and custodial services in New Haven public schools, but since service employees and parents began questioning the company’s food quality and alleged overcharging in November, public dissent has only grown.
In response, Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo has pledged to make the application and selection process more transparent than in previous years and to consider seriously public opinion.
“We are sensitive to the concerns that have been raised and we will open up the process in an effort to determine the best option for the Board of Education,” Mayo said in a press release last month. “A key issue will be cost effectiveness.”
The interview process will begin in April and a final decision from the Board of Education is expected by the beginning of July, said Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo, director of communications for New Haven Public Schools.
But Larry Amendola, president of the Local 3144 Union and a representative of management workers in the schools, said he is not convinced that the Board of Education will not give the contract right back to Aramark.
“I’ve been involved with politics in New Haven and I’ve been union president for 20 years, so I know how the system works,” Amendola said. “And I wouldn’t bet on Aramark leaving, even though that would be the best outcome for everyone involved.”
Amendola said the unions’ primary concern with Aramark is the quality of food they are serving to New Haven children, which has dropped in recent years, but he and his peers are also concerned that Aramark is overcharging and unnecessarily draining taxpayer money.He said this anxiety was echoed by the students, parents, custodians and dining workers who attended the Board of Aldermen Education Committee’s public hearing last Tuesday.
“There was not one positive thing said about Aramark the entire night,” he said.
Anna Robinson-Sweet ’11, who attended the public hearing last week, said she left City Hall convinced that Aramark should be replaced with a new contractor. Particularly alarming was the supply costs accrued by ordering through Aramark, which charges more than other food-service companies might, she said.
“One of the cafeteria workers who testified said a single watermelon costs $10 if it is ordered through Aramark,” Robinson-Sweet said.
Kristine Grow, spokeswoman for Aramark, said union and community members presented a great deal of misinformation to the aldermen at the meeting, but Aramark felt it would be inappropriate to attend the meeting in light of the on-going bid process.
Instead, Regional Vice President of Aramark Steve Weiser sent the Board of Aldermen a letter attempting to refute many of the claims made on Tuesday, including those of poor food quality.
In the letter, Weiser said Aramark has “scored well in Board of Health inspections and earned seals of approval from both the Coordinated Review Effort audit and the School Meals Initiative review conducted by the Connecticut Department of Education.”
Ward 4 Alderwoman Andrea Jackson-Brooks, who chairs the aldermanic Education Committee, said she thinks that although the situation warrants further investigation, the testimony given at the meeting did not paint a pretty picture of Aramark.
“It can be frustrating because as aldermen, we can only make a recommendation,” Jackson-Brooks said. “But the Board of Education seems to have recognized a problem as well because they have begun accepting bids.”
Larry Dorman, a spokesman for the Local 287 division of Council 4, said the most efficient and effective model the city could adopt would be a self-managed model rather than an outside-contractor setup.
“We think the mayor and the aldermen really need to look hard at why the city has spent millions of dollars with an outside contractor to essentially act as an incompetent middle man,” Dorman said.
Yale terminated its contract with Aramark in February, moving to in-house management of its dining halls.
Union members will hold another rally to protest Aramark’s presence in the school system April 14 at City Hall.