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City Hall: Third-graders want school food they can actually eat

TED SIEFER
June 20. 2015 9:54PM


LAST MONTH, a group of bright-eyed third-graders from Parker-Varney Elementary School gave a presentation to the school board that documented widespread dissatisfaction with the school meal program.

The board was so impressed that it voted that very night to issue a request for proposals for a vendor to come up with more palatable fare, with an ambitious goal of launching a pilot program at the school in the fall.

Earlier this month the RFP went out, and as impressive as their presentation was, one doubts that the students had much say in drawing up the document, which seeks proposals from FSMCs - food service management companies - and is chock-full of legalese concerning performance bonds and the submission of financial statements.

It reads much like the kind of RFP a government agency issues when it wants a contractor to take over one of its services; in other words, to privatize - and this, it must be noted, is a bad word among some members of the school board.

In fact, much of the language in the RFP is boiler-plate copy that can be found in RFPs issued by other states and districts that have sought to contract out their food service programs.

This, of course, is not the first time the district has flirted with privatizing the $5.5 million food service program, which has seen a dramatic drop in revenue from food sales in recent years.

In 2011, board members visited Lowell, Mass., where Aramark - the city's beloved custodial contractor - handles the school meal program. In the end, the board resisted privatizing the program.

With qualifications requiring a vendor to have at least three years doing business with school districts, the district's RFP would seem to favor a large established contractor like Aramark.

To be sure, the RFP is focused only on Parker-Varney, and one of its stated objectives is to "increase participation at all levels of our program by improving food quality ... by seeking student and parent input" and by "successful menu variation and planning." Surely, the kids will be on board with that provision.

We'll see what kind of response the district gets. Bids are due July 6.

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Contract negotiations with city's labor unions ran into the ditch earlier this month, when a tentative deal with two of the unions was rejected by the board and the mayor resigned as chief negotiator.

So, how are city workers feeling about the likely prospect that they will begin the new fiscal year in a couple of weeks without contracts - and more to the point, without raises? Jeff Duval, for one, finds the development disappointing, but the long-serving president of the Manchester Professional Fire Fighters Association also looks forward to having someone other than Mayor Ted Gatsas on the opposite side of the table.

"We really weren't getting anywhere with the mayor in our negotiations," he told me.

Duval said he was concerned morale among the 200 or so firefighters and support staff could suffer if the situation persists for months on end. But, he stressed, "Every member of our local will continue to serve the public to the best of their ability everyday, regardless of a contract."

But if the firefighters and other unions are expecting better treatment from a committee of aldermen, my hunch is they might have to dig in for a time - at least until after the November election.

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On the brighter side, the teachers have a contract, assuming it gets duly ratified by the school board and the aldermen.

On paper at least it seems the school board's negotiators managed to finally strike the right balance between giving the teachers more money while extracting concessions on health insurance.

But the question has been raised: how does the cost of having a contract compare with the cost of continuing the two-year stalemate, with the 2013 pay schedule frozen in place, along with generous health care plans.

Ward 10 board member John Avard, the chairman of the board's negotiations subcommittee, supplied an answer last week. In the first fiscal year (the one that begins July 1), going without a contract would be considerably more costly to the district than the preliminary agreement, according to calculations by the district's business administrator. (Avard posted the information on the Facebook page, Manchester School Chat.)

But in the third year of the contract - when substantial raises kick in - the contract will lead to a $2.2-$2.8 million increase in the budget, compared to $1.3 million without a contract. Over the three years of the contract, the increased costs to the district range from $2.7 million to $4.5 million.

The increased cost without a contract is right in the middle: $3.3 million.

Of course, proponents of the agreement might argue that you can't quantify the value of having happy teachers.

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Finally, after about three years, it's time for me to bid farewell to the city beat.

I'm moving on to pursue other opportunities. I can sincerely say I've found covering City Hall a fascinating and inspiring experience.

Democracy is alive and well in the Queen City, even if it gets a little messy at times.

Stay classy Manchester.

I leave the City Hall beat in good hands: Paul Feely.

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Thanks Ted. After eight years at the Union Leader, my name shouldn't be new to readers, but my face may be unfamiliar at City Hall.

That will change, starting this week.

Taking stewardship of this column is an honor, and if a 25-year career in journalism has taught me anything it's this - the only way to cover a beat is to get out and walk it.

There is so much more to chronicling the inner workings of City Hall than simply sitting in on meetings, and I look forward to passing along items of interest that will keep readers coming back to this space every Sunday.


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