This article appeared in the Bristol Press:

BRISTOL — Candidates running for the Board of Education in the Nov. 3 election took on the controversy that has been dogging the board since it first voted last year to sign a contract with Long Island-based Whitsons Culinary Group.

Despite the issue getting bogged down by various legal decisions, the board’s Republican majority voted again in September to go with Whitsons to close deficit spending on the cafeterias.

At a political forum sponsored recently by the Bristol Federation of Teachers and the Bristol Parent Teacher Organization, the candidates took on the questions: “How would you work with the cafeteria staff to provide a better service to students and close the deficit? Do you support the privatization of cafeteria services? Why or why not?”

Two candidates from each party were randomly chosen to respond and each candidate had two minutes to speak.

Joe Grabowski, Democrat, said he opposed outsourcing, noting that the cafeteria budget deficit shrank to about $60,000 last year.

“I believe that as the economy improves the deficit will ultimately diminish,” he said. “We have to remember that this is not a business, this is a service.”

In addition, 52 of the 53 “cafeteria moms” live in Bristol, he said.

“They are part of our economy. They have homes here, families, they buy from our stores. Personally I think it would be foolish to have these people lose their jobs. They help our local economy.”

On the contrary David Scott, Republican, said he supports outsourcing, saying it’s a difficult decision, but historically the cafeteria service deficit has totaled about $1 million for the district.

Having a private company provide that service means the district can hold them accountable for keeping costs down, he said.

Scott said the cafeteria workers have will have the opportunity to transition to working for Whitsons, adding “we do realize that they are residents of Bristol, that they service our children — my children, your children.”

Tom O’Brien, the incumbent Democrat, said the issue reflects a philosophical difference between the two parties. While the cafeteria budget deficit had “unsustainable levels” in recent years, for most years it has been between $25,000 and $50,000, he said.

The Democrats believe  negotiating with the cafeteria workers’ union is a major step to reduce the deficits, O’Brien said.

Cafeteria services cost money, just as sports, teaching, the arts, and special education do, he said. “There’s a cost to everything. Education is not a revenue-producing entity. It’s not a business.”

“Losing control to a third party, which is almost irreversible once it takes place, and very costly to re-introduce (district-run cafeteria services), is not an acceptable solution,” he commented.

Larry Amara, the incumbent Republican board chairman, said the deficit for the last 10 years has been $250,000 on average.

Amara said while it has been better recently, having a private company run things means saving thousands of dollars that can be available if equipment like a freezer needs to be replaced.

He compared it to previous outsourcing of crossing guards and bus transportation services, and the board’s recent vote to outsource the hiring of substitute teachers through Kelly Services.

“Everyone should understand we were very compassionate with these cafeteria ladies,” he said. “We offered them a $1,000 stipend. We offered them $1,500 in unemployment compensation.”

They can join the union if re-hired and they will be getting benefits, he continued, calling it “a win-win for our kids and for Bristol.”

Susan Corica can be reached at 860-584-0501 ext. 1802 or scorica@bristolpress.com.

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