The Alma School Board has given its approval for Superintendent Dr. David Woolly to begin taking exploratory steps into the viability of outsourcing the district’s food service during its January meeting.
The board voted to let Woolly begin the fact-finding stage of the process.
“This is taking a step in a different direction than anything we’ve ever done and I certainly want to proceed cautiously and be sure before we do it – if we decide we want to do it – that it is the right thing to do,” Woolly told the board. “I think there’s a good chance that it is, but I’m not convinced it is until we’ve done our work to be sure.”
Outsourcing has become a popular, convenient and sometimes profitable way for school districts to do business during recent years.
“A lot of districts outsource their transportation, some districts outsource their custodial, maintenance, building and grounds operations and some districts outsource their substitute teacher programs,” said Woolly. “That’s the only thing we’ve ever outsourced in the past.”
The Alma School District outsourced its substitute teacher program for two years a few years ago before taking the program back.
Now the superintendent is interested in finding out if it would benefit the district to outsource its food service.
The process will begin with a lot of exploration.
“Let me say very quickly and very emphatically, I’m nowhere near ready to recommend that we do this,” Woolly said. “We’re very much just in the exploring phase: thinking about it, looking at it, trying to decide if it’s the right thing for us to do or not. But to answer those types of questions you’ve got to look at it. That’s where we are right now.”
Woolly said there are seven companies nationwide that specialize in this type of service and are approved by the Arkansas Department of Education. Four of them have contracts with schools in Arkansas. Of those four only one, K12 Culinary Collection, is based in Arkansas (Bryant).
The other three doing business with in-state schools are OPAA Food Management of Chesterfield, Missouri; Compass Group (doing business as Chartwells) out of Charlotte, North Carolina; and Arrowmark Educational Services based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Woolly said Chartwells takes care of all of the University of Arkansas’ food service work.
“Those four combined have about 80 school districts in Arkansas and it’s very evenly distributed,” Woolly said. “Each of those four has about 18 to 20 districts. So it’s not one company that holds a majority of districts.”
Woolly said the companies, because of their size, have “terrific buying power” and purchase everything from cooking equipment to dishes to food at greatly reduced prices, far lower than what the district can do.
“One thing they typically do is to take on the responsibility of upgrading and updating equipment that needs to be replaced,” he added. “They often come in and redecorate the dining area to make it more appealing to students. In most cases they will have a chef that is full time in the district. I think we are of the size that they would have a full-time chef here working with our staff.”
Staffing was a concern voiced by the board during the meeting. Woolly assured the members there would be no staff cuts should the district choose to outsource the work.
“Our staff will remain the same,” he said. “Their salaries will remain the same and their retirements will stay the same.”
He mentioned that one company he visited with said any employees they added would be given the option of working for the company or for the district.
“Typically, what they tell me, is that as time goes on some new employees that come to work choose to work for the company rather than the school district,” he said. “It ends up that there are some of both. Some work for the school district while others working right next to them work for the company. That seems a little strange to me but apparently it works just fine.”
The superintendent said he visited with the district’s food service workers earlier in the day prior to presenting the issue to the school board.
“I visited with all our food service workers this morning at each building about this,” he said. “They would continue to be our employees. They would continue to work for us. Nothing changes about that. They would get paid the same and work the same schedule. Their health insurance stays the same and their retirement stays the same. None of that changes at all.”
When asked by a board member what those workers thought about the idea, Woolly said, “We didn’t have a lot of time for many conversations. But everybody’s nervous about change about anything and I understand that. They were in the middle of getting ready for lunch and so we didn’t take a lot of their time. I didn’t want them to hear about this (after the meeting) and go, ‘What?’ I wanted them to hear it from me and not from a rumor that might be wrong.”
He did say the process is not a franchise operation and that everything would be personalized to the Alma district.
“It will be our people cooking our food with our recipes for what our kids want to have,” he noted. “The program still has to meet all the regulations that we have to meet today in terms of federal and state regulations about how much salt comes in the food and all those things. That doesn’t change at all.”
Woolly added that the free and reduced meal program would remain intact and that the district would still set food prices and remain in control of the pricing.
He added that each of the companies’ services extends to concession stands at sporting events, school banquets, catering at school events and even the meals offered by the district through its summer mobile library.
“They don’t do anything without our approval,” he said. “It almost seems like it’s a win-win situation. There doesn’t seem to be any downside.”
Now that the board has given its consent to begin the exploratory process, Woolly said the district will put together a request for proposal from a template furnished by the department of education.
“We will put all our information in it and send it to the state for them to make sure we’ve done it correctly,” he said. “Then we would put this out to these seven companies for proposals and give them time to submit their proposals back to us.”
Each company will be offered the opportunity to visit the district’s facilities in person and ask any questions they may have of district officials.
“One of the other things we will be doing is visiting schools in Arkansas that are roughly our size and have programs with all of the companies,” Woolly said. “We’ll be asking them what they like about this, what they don’t like, what they wish they could do differently, why they are doing it, are they thinking about quitting doing it and things like that. And we’ll be visiting with the cooks in the buildings and asking them what does and doesn’t work for them ... getting all those questions answered.”
He added, “That will be part of our evaluation of whether or not this is something we ought to do.”
After receiving all proposals from the companies that choose to submit proposals, district officials will decide which proposal is the best fit and send that information back to the state for its approval.
“Meeting the federal regulations on school food service is very touchy. It’s very exact and very specific,” said Woolly. “The state’s not going to let us mess up, in other words. They’re going to look at it from the front end to the back end.
“At that point,” he continued, “if we feel like it’s something we want to do we’ll bring it back to the board with the recommendation and the RFP for the board to consider if we want to do this.”
Depending on how things go, Woolly said a proposal could be put in front of the board during its meeting in possibly March or April and, if approved, the goal would be to sign a contract in May.
“The No. 1 thing in us making that determination is visiting with other schools,” he said. “We will talk mostly with schools that are about our size. It doesn’t help us a lot to talk with schools that are a lot larger or a lot smaller. We need to talk with schools that operate about like we do in terms of numbers of campuses and numbers of kids fed, those sorts of things.”
One topic that came up more than once from the board was how these companies make their money from this kind of partnership.
“Their buying power is one thing that makes it affordable to them,” Woolly said, “and they claim and document an increase in student participation everywhere they’ve done it which means more revenue.”
Woolly said districts are also profiting from outsourcing to these companies.
“Our objective is not to profit from this although many schools do,” he said. “Many schools, at the end of the year, will get, in some cases, a really big check from the company. That’s not my objective. I’d like the program to pay for itself, but my objective is not to make it a profit center. But that often happens.”
He added, “I don’t know any other way to say it, but this apparently works very well if it’s done right.”