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School Lunch Program Runs $181,000 Deficit Despite Best Efforts. Outsourcing Likely

by John  Ellenberger


   Groton Dunstable food services director Shannon Donovan has worked hard over the past year on changes to the district’s food service program to bring it closer to break-even status. Unfortunately, while her work has drawn praise from School Committee members, the changes have failed to impact the bottom line. The district’s food service program is running a $181,000 deficit, down slightly from the past two years $186,000 and $185,000 deficits, respectively.

   Last year an external audit of Groton Dunstable school district operations identified two areas that could yield immediate savings. Consultants recommended outsourcing custodial services and food service.  Late last school year the district signed an agreement with a local, third-party cleaning company to provide building custodial services and terminated the contracts with existing custodial employees.

   At a recent school committee meeting Ms. Donovan provided the status of the district’s food service program.   Although she has made efforts to reduce some costs in purchasing and preparation, the program’s largest cost, labor, is largely out of her control due to union contracts. She was able to reduce overall labor hours slightly for a savings of $26,759 but this was eaten up by growth in wages and benefits of the service’s full-time employees.

   Donovan has mostly focused on programs intended to increase hot lunch participation, which has historically hovered around 40 percent of the 2367 students. A check of similar districts by business manager Michael Knight indicates that this enrollment statistic, as well as many of the other program numbers, are comparable with what other districts are experiencing.

   The food service team has implemented a number of marketing efforts from social media participation, to “theme meals” and “tasty Tuesdays” (crowd selected meals). School Committee members asked Donavan to look at expanding  services such as offering more before and after school options.  It was even suggested that the district explore dropping out of the government subsidized lunch programs which might give the district more flexibility in setting menus and meal prices.

   However given the reality that program growth is unlikely to overcome the fixed labor costs, the committee instructed business manager Knight to draft an RFP asking for bids to outsource the district’s food services.   Ms. Donovan was asked to study some of the suggestions from the meeting and come back to the group with a counter proposal. The committee will compare numbers and make a decision later in the school year.

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