Cafeteria workers are worried about their jobs being outsourced by the Fort Worth school district.
During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s school board meeting, cafeteria employees voiced their concerns, saying they don’t want the district to issue a request for proposals to find a private food service company. The workers said even though district leaders have told them their jobs are not threatened, they believe that early talk of improving high school food service foreshadows future outsourcing.
The district has 1,046 cafeteria/nutrition workers. Dozens of them showed up Tuesday night even though trustees were not taking a vote. Many carried signs with slogans such as “Help Save Our Jobs” and “United For Respect.”
“We want to stop” the request for proposals, said Cindy Lowman, a cafeteria worker with Fort Worth schools for 30 years. “We don’t want them to even start looking for a company.”
About 20 people spoke on the issue Tuesday, the majority of them cafeteria workers and their allies. Some described hearing of lower pay and lost retirement from fellow cafeteria workers at nearby districts that have outsourced nutrition.
They also described a deep connection with school communities, including helping resolve issues that surface in kitchens and telling a parent that a child is yearning for ice cream. Their comments were met with cheers and claps from the audience, which was made up of mostly cafeteria workers.
“We don’t do this because it is our jobs. We do this because we love the students,” Lowman told the board.
The school district has said there are no plans to cut cafeteria workers. Instead, the district is looking at ways to boost services, and that may include contracting with a company to support existing cafeteria operations, said Clint Bond, a district spokesman. Superintendent Kent Scribner stressed that message to the cafeteria workers twice before Tuesday’s meeting, Bond said.
“We are studying opportunities available to increase our breakfast and lunch options and to increase the food quality and student participation, particularly in our high schools,” Bond said.
The district is also trying to fill 95 vacancies.
“Our plans are to keep all those workers employed and to fill the vacancies,” Bond told the Star-Telegram before Tuesday’s meeting.
School board President Tobi Jackson said before the meeting that no change was on the table Tuesday. She said the challenge for the district is finding the “most appetizing food for students.”
Cafeteria workers began gathering at about 4:30 p.m. for the 5:30 p.m. meeting. Their concerns have been percolating for weeks but recently spiked, and about 400 cafeteria workers met with the United Educators Association to discuss the matter.
“People are concerned about their jobs and they are mad,” said Steven Poole, executive director of the UEA, which represents more than 23,000 public school employees in North Texas. “They feel so passionately about this they want to talk to the school board.”
The starting wage for a Fort Worth cafeteria worker is $11.09 an hour, according to the district. Outsourcing and/or consulting services are not new to the district, which uses them in such areas as maintenance and academics. However, the district has not outsourced on a large scale, Bond said.
Outsourcing cafeteria workers has occurred in some nearby districts, including Crowley, which began doing so with Philadelphia-based Aramark in 2009. The Keller school district has outsourced food services with Maryland-based company Sodexo, for several years. Before that, Keller contracted with Aramark. Keller hasn’t had in-house cafeteria services for at least 10 years.
Staff writer Sandra Engelland contributed to this report.