Negaunee board votes against food service privatization

NEGAUNEE – An impassioned audience of about 50 people applauded when the Negaunee school board decided Monday night to not privatize its food services for the coming school year.

“I want to thank the board for giving food services another year to see if we can pull this together,” Colleen Allen, president of the Negaunee Michigan Education Support Personnel union that represents the food service workers, said at the close of discussion of the possiblity of making the change.

Superintendent Jim Derocher reported that after the board at its April meeting authorized taking bids for food services, the only company that responded was Chartwell, which is based in Detroit.

Several board members spoke about doing research into the company’s services with other districts who use it. However, board members said they are not ready at this point to abandon the current food services program and its workers.

“This coming year is a critical one in determining what road to take in the future,” board President Greg Toutant said.

In the budget presented to the board Monday, $77,726 was transferred from the general fund to the food services budget. But board members said they believe things can improve.

“From what these people have said, I believe they can do a better job saving money,” board member Susan Wideman-Schaible said. “I think we should give them a chance to see if they can make a difference.”

Board member Virginia Paulson agreed.

“We really haven’t had enough time to look at (the issue),” Paulson said. “I think it’s an issue for the staff working with the administration now and finding out where money can be saved.”

Before the board discussed the potential for turning the food service for the district over to an outside company, Allen and a number of other people addressed the topic during public comment, speaking in support of the 20 workers who could have lost their jobs had the privatization been approved.

Mike Thibault, president of the Marquette County Labor Council, called privatization a “disturbing trend in our communities.”

“You have 20 employees here who have Negaunee pride, who have a vested interest in the community,” he said. “If you bring in an outside company, you would not have the same kind of service.”

Others, including Negaunee High School special education teacher Pam Debelak, sang the praises of the food services staff.

“They’re our front line people. They are community members invested in our schools,” Debelak said. “When our kids go through the line, (the workers) know each of their names and they know the needs of the students. They know who to talk to when a special needs student comes through and needs something.

“This group is so much more than someone who serves food. They are another part of the whole village that is raising our children.”

Derocher said the next step would be to advertise for a replacement for Hazel Blandford, who recently retired as the food services director. That job will be advertised, with hopes the post can be filled at the July board meeting.

From there, school board member Marty Saari said discussions will continue.

“We have to work as a team, management and union together,” Saari said.

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.