The next step to managing the school district's budget shortfall could be outsourcing its cafeteria workers.

The next step to managing the school district's budget shortfall could be outsourcing its cafeteria workers.

The food service program has been a drain on the general fund budget since at least 2003, and will lose an estimated $155,000 this school year, even with a six-hour reduction in employee hours, Business Manager Jill Turner told school board members and a roomful of district cafeteria employees Monday night. Outsourcing all food service workers would reduce the loss to $5,000 next year.

The school district has had to make $4.3 million in cuts to the general fund budget, a process that has left no realm of the schools untouched. If the district decides to maintain control of its food service, cuts would need to come from somewhere else, most likely classroom teachers, a move Superintendent Juli Di Chiro has been trying to avoid, she said.

"Our financial condition continues to worsen, so again, if we don't move down this road, we have to find some other way to make those reductions," she said.

School board members reviewed a request for proposals with a clause to guarantee the program would be self-supporting, but delayed a vote on the issue until their April 13 board meeting, hoping to have more information on why the program is losing money.

Current model

The district implemented a hybrid model with Sodexo in 2005, in which the company provides a food service director, the food and employees for the high school program while the district manages elementary and middle school cafeterias. The program did not meet original budget projections and losses have grown every year.

Low participation rates have also plagued the cafeteria program, with 36 percent of students purchasing lunch, down from a high of 44 percent in 2006-07. Just less than 10 percent eat breakfast at school. If the district ran its own program, about three-quarters of students would need to eat lunch to break even, Turner said.

The board also heard a counter proposal from the Oregon School Employees Association, which represents cafeteria workers, to create an in-house model over the next year. Such a program would allow more local control and flexibility, take away the profit motive and guarantee the continued presence of a dedicated, knowledgeable staff, said Cindy Drought, a field representative for the union. The Oregon Department of Education offers free assistance to districts seeking to run their own fiscally sound lunch programs and could provide help as early as the end of April, she said.

"We are the heart and soul of the cafeteria," said Lori Davis, one of several cafeteria workers who spoke to the board. They can help identify areas of waste — such as expensive purchases of roast beef, kiwis and mangoes and poor quality kitchen utensils — that could help save the district money, she said.

Board reaction

While board members said they are generally opposed to privatization, extreme economic situations forced them to consider such measures.

"This budget crisis is unprecedented and bad options like privatization look more viable," Board Chair Mat Marr said.

He also expressed disappointment with the community for not supporting the school lunch program even after the district responded to requests for healthier food and continues to include more local and organic choices.

"I feel the community has let this program down and painted us into a corner," he said. "There is really good food in our cafeterias, and its time our own families respond to these innovative programs by sending their children to eat lunch."

Other board members were concerned privatizing food service would send the program down a road of no return.

"I really want to avoid cutting things that are going to become permanent cuts," board member Amy Patton said. The four-day school week, which could save up to $1.75 million according to a presentation done at the March board meeting, might be a better option to help programs survive until the economic crisis passes, she said.

The board will discuss the four-day week along with the second round of budget cuts at a public meeting on Tuesday, April 8 at 7 p.m. in the Ashland High School library. The proposal to outsource cafeteria workers will be reconsidered on April 13 at 7 p.m. in the Ashland Council Chambers.

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.