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Newton lunch ladies decry budget cuts

Posted by Leslie Anderson  April 6, 2010 09:27 AM

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The Newton School Committee voted Monday to adopt a 2011 budget that cuts $500,000 from the school lunch program, despite protests by cafeteria workers that the savings would be achieved through privatization.

Around 100 Newton cafeteria workers and their supporters gathered at the School Committee meeting to protest the privatization option, which they said would affect both the quality of the food and the school experience of Newton children.

‘‘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 interim superintendent Jim Marini, despite a $1.8 million gap in funding.

‘‘We’re taking a risk,’’ said Reenie Murphy, cochairperson of the School Committee. ‘‘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 on 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.

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

However, the board cautioned that shortfalls on state funding would require them to re-examine the budget, and that future cuts would by necessity take place closer to the classroom.

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

Among the cost-cutting measures in the district’s new budget is the $500,000 savings from the school lunch program, which the Newton Custodian and Cafeteria Worker’s Association fears will be achieved by privatization.

‘‘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 felt the $500,000 savings could be achieved by looking into the pension and benefit structure for cafeteria workers, 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.’’

Tim Curry, president of the union, said that he felt the cafeteria workers’ position was weakened by the School Committee 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.’’

The union has already met with the School Committee once, and a second round of arbitration is scheduled for April 20.

‘‘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 they expect the 2012 budget to be even more difficult to craft than 2011.

‘‘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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