THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Newton schools trim lunch program

By Sarah Thomas
Globe Correspondent / April 8, 2010

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The Newton School Committee voted Monday to adopt a budget for next fiscal year that cuts $500,000 from the district’s lunch program, despite protests by cafeteria workers expressing concern that the savings would be achieved through privatization.

About 100 cafeteria workers and supporters were at the School Committee meeting to protest the privatization option, which they said would hurt both the food quality and the school experience for students.

“I think this is a public safety issue,’’ said Newton resident Jack Morrissey, who has grandchildren in the district. “These workers know our children, they live here and are invested in our community. They are familiar to residents, and they are familiar with the individual children’s needs. They won’t get that kind of attention from outside workers.’’

The School Committee voted to adopt the budget presented by the district’s interim superintendent, James Marini, despite a $1.8 million gap in funding.

“We’re taking a risk,’’ said Reenie Murphy, the committee’s chairwoman “In previous years, we knew by this point many, if not all, of our funding sources and could be sure of our revenue for the coming year. This year is different.’’

Part of the uncertainty stems from questions about the state’s local aid contributions, which are expected to be slashed. Though Governor Deval Patrick has tried to keep local aid level-funded during the state’s budget crisis, the Legislature has warned municipalities to brace for a cut of between 4 percent and 5 percent for the year starting July 1.

Newton crafted its school budget assuming a 10 percent drop in local aid. If there’s only a 4 percent decrease, the district’s budget shortfall would be approximately $700,000, an amount that could be filled by better citywide deals on utilities and health care, officials say.

However, the school board’s members cautioned that a deeper drop in state funding would require them to reexamine the budget, and make cuts hitting closer to the classroom.

“The only place we have left to go is programs,’’ said committee cochairwoman Claire Sokoloff. “But we hope to know by June whether or not we’ll have to.’’

Among the other cuts in the district’s new budget is a reduction in special education aides and administrative secretaries.

Faced with the food service reductions, the Newton Custodian and Cafeteria Workers Association is working with the district to achieve the savings without eliminating any jobs.

“It’s sad to see the school district making decisions based on money and not what’s best for the kids,’’ said Claudia Gentile, a cafeteria worker at Day Middle School. “We feed the children well, provide them with good company, and treat them with respect. That’s important, because it teaches the children to respect as well.’’

Some cafeteria workers said the $500,000 needed to maintain the current school lunch program could be found by looking into the cafeteria workers’ pension and benefit structure, as well as providing lunch managers with more power to choose cost-effective food options.

“I think benefits could be our biggest arena for savings,’’ said Nancy Sullivan, a cafeteria worker at Day Middle School. “We could look at the way our sick days work, or how our health care premiums work.’’

The union met with the School Committee last week for the first of a series of talks to discuss strategies for achieving the $500,000 reduction in cafeteria services. A second round is scheduled for April 20.

Tim Curry, the union’s president, said that he felt the cafeteria workers’ position was weakened by the school board’s budget vote.

“Right now, we feel like we have a gun to our heads,’’ Curry said. “We’re going to have to be very creative in our negotiations with the School Committee if we want to avoid privatization.’’

“We will negotiate with them in good faith,’’ said Jonathan Yeo, chairman of the district’s negotiating subcommittee. ’’We’ve heard from them, and now that the budget has been adopted we’ll be ready to concentrate on our response.’’

The School Committee has said that there is a potential for $1 million in savings from the lunch program over the next two years, and that it expects the 2011-12 budget to be even more difficult to balance.

“Next year, we will be losing $1.8 million in federal stimulus funding,’’ said committee member Geoffrey Epstein. “And this budget assumes a zero increase in pay for teachers, which isn’t a done deal yet. It’s not going to be an easy budget next year.’’

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