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Community Should Know The Facts, Not Just What Local 888 SEIU Union Rep Says

To the Editor:

   As our School Community is aware, the District conducted an independent audit of every department in search of efficiencies to reallocate funding to our students’ academic needs. The School Committee is now in the final stages of reviewing recommendations, exploring outsourcing management and/or the entire food service department.  

   Part of this process included acquiring real costs and offerings associated with outsourcing and compare this information with the current in-house costs and offerings through Decisional Bargaining with the Local 888 SEIU Union that represents the cafeteria employees. For complete transparency, I am the School Committee appointed negotiator for Decisional Negotiations speaking on my behalf and not for the entire School Committee as I address the community in this letter. 

    More than a month ago the Union was provided with a copy of the bid from Whitson Culinary Group and the alternative vendor which included the associated costs and offerings. This was done even before the School Committee’s review of the bids. Since that time the negotiation teams for both parties have met twice. 

   The Local 888 SEIU Union had failed to provide any counter proposal to the cost savings and offerings presented to them from the School Committee. This failure was in contrast to previous contract negotiations as well as decisional bargaining with the custodians whereby each party comes to the table to bargain in good faith and offer proposals for each side to consider.

    During the Decisional Negotiation Meeting, a smear campaign was launched against the Whitson Culinary Group and School Committee. Without permission from administration or the School Committee, Neal O’Brien, Local 888 SEIU Union Representative who represents the GDRSD cafeteria workers, left the negotiation table during negotiations to pass out flyers to parents picking up their students on school property and then proceeded to put them on the windshields of cars in the school parking lot and along Main Street. 

  This flyer provided roughly four links to articles that shared experiences with Boston Schools/Yelp, Brookline and Longmeadow schools, however, failed to provide facts or any context with the links.  Also, the flyer makes accusations that by outsourcing the School Committee is putting student’s health and safety at risk.  

   As history has shown, the School Committee has never launched a smear campaign towards any employee or union in our district. Due to this unexpected and unacceptable tactic taken by the union representation, I am compelled as an individual School Committee Member to share with the community facts about the links.

    Let me, please begin with the obvious, Neal O’Brien’s, Local 888 SEIU Union flyer states that the School Committee is putting “Our Children’s Health at Risk” when he is not even a parent in our District, unlike your School Committee members that volunteer their time to serve you who are, indeed, parents with students in our District. Collectively, the School Committee has approximately 15 students that attend school here in our district. 

  Our children sit next to your children in the lunchroom, and they receive the same offerings and are serviced by the same cafeteria staff as your children. Many have severe allergies to various foods. To claim that our committee would make decisions that would put children’s health at risk is incredibly distasteful and the School Committee deserves a written apology for that accusation.

   The articles provided in the flyer do not offer anything but a brief snippet of what the Local 888 SEIU Union wants the community to read, but there is more information out there for review. 

    Boston Public Schools/Yelp report negative food quality according to the articles, explicitly mentioning flash frozen food shipped from their facility in New York then reheated at schools. What some people may not know is that the contract that was requested by the district with Whitson was for frozen food.  Some food service contracts are structured in this manner because 60 percent of the kitchens in Boston schools only have a heating station and do not offer the ability to cook on site unlike our facilities here at GD. 

  Regardless of how the School Committee decides to move forward, hot entrées will be prepared in our kitchens unlike in the Boston contracts referenced in the articles. Whitson’s proposal offers a more extensive selection of offerings that are all made on site from pasta stations, fruit/salad bars, made to order sandwiches, Mexican stations, World Market Station, grill station, fruit smoothie station, tasting station and flavor stations where students can add healthy spices to their meals.  

   Brookline Public Schools was found to be in noncompliance with the USDA and DESE during a food service program annual audit before hiring Whitson Culinary Group (more than 20 findings). They made changes to the various ingredients in order to make the food that they are serving healthier meals that do comply. As a result, there were some complaints about the change in food quality. 

   Currently, the GDRSD cafeteria service program is not out of compliance, therefore an adjustment period to get used to the loss of sweet honey-glazed cinnamon buns, white sticky rice, white crust pizza, and buttery vegetables to steamed vegetables, replaced with whole grain rolls/pizza, and brown rice would not be expected. Notably, the most recent Brookline Food Service audit from DESE found improvement with far fewer findings. You can read more about the facts in this matter on the Brookline public school website.

   Longmeadow Schools had a challenge with alleged sexual harassment in 2017. The article shows an incident allegedly involving a Whitson’s food service employee being patted on the bottom by a Whitson’s cook. This individual no longer is employed by Whitson Culinary Group. Unlike union employees protected by union contracts, vendor employees may be removed immediately at the sole discretion of a District without grievances or legal fees being incurred.   

   In summary, the School Committee will continue to bargain in good faith with Local 888 SEIU Union and await a counterproposal as an alternative to the cost savings and offerings of the Whitson’s Culinary Group proposal. The Local 888 SEIU Union has been informed that the School Committee intends to conclude decisional bargaining and make a final decision on or by April 10, 2019, as our cafeteria workers deserve an answer sooner rather than later. 

  It is my personal hope that the Local 999 SEIU Union representatives focus their time and energy on coming to the table to bargain in good faith and abandon their smear campaign. 

Marlena Gilbert

Chair Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee

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