The School Committee, seen on television last week, voted against a shared food service agreement with the North Adams schools.
CLARKSBURG, Mass. — The School Committee voted 2-1 last week to decline an offer from the North Adams Public Schools' Food Service Department to take over the cafeteria.
School officials said they were impressed by the quality of the food and the performance of the staff after visiting the two off-site schools it serves — Emma Miller School in Savoy and Berkshire Arts & Technology Public Charter School in Adams — but decided to put off for at least a year a decision on entering a shared service agreement.
Principal Tara Barnes said concerns had been expressed to her by teachers over "uncertainties" as the school district considers merging with Stamford (Vt.) Elementary School to create an interstate school district. There has also been a desire, expressed at other meetings, of ensuring the cafeteria would be able to serve the school as needed because the food would be prepared at Drury High School and transported to Clarksburg.
"I want to, again, maybe give the CTA an opportunity to talk about the letter that they wrote, because what they had been asking was for just a stay, sort of like a year, to hold off on a decision like this," Barnes said at last Thursday's meeting that was telecast on Northern Berkshire Community Television. "It's nothing personal, it's nothing about what you do professionally ... it's really there's a lot of uncertainty."
Chairwoman Patricia Prenguber, however, did not feel those issues were enough to nix the proposal and was the only vote for the agreement.
"I'm concerned about the equipment. I know it's not going to break down tomorrow, but I'm worried about that," she said. "I know that the community wants to come here and at times use the kitchen, so that's a point of contention. I don't know if the variables that we speak about that are an uncertainty now will be resolved by next year. I think we'll still have uncertainties then so I don't know putting it off will be the answer to that question."
School Committee members Laura Wood and Cynthia Brule did not directly speak to the issue, but one audience member praised the Savoy school operation. Another, however, noted that it had been nice that Clarksburg has been able to provide little things that might be lost — like snacks during Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System testing. But North Adams' Food Service Director Cory Nicholas said he's been providing the purchased snacks to Clarksburg for years.
Nicholas had explained how the proposal would work last month
. The department would take over all of the food production and service — including the current staff at Clarksburg (who could apply) — to create a "revenue neutral" model similar to that in the city's schools and the two other school districts being served in the program. The only thing Clarksburg School would be responsible for was unpaid lunches — but NAPS would also install an online system over which payments and reminders could be made.
Superintendent John Franzoni also reminded the committee that the kitchen equipment is old and that the school needs to install a point-of-sale system because it can't continue to use a pad and pencil.
"What we're doing now is a good program. It's just that we have a lot of areas around the building, a lot of challenges right now in terms of that," he said. "How would we would address them if there is a problem and what is the best plan to be sustainable going forward?"
Franzoni had planned to use the $38,000 in
wages and insurance for the cafeteria staff to offset $119,000 in expenses the school department was being asked to absorb into its budget so they would not have to use school choice funds. The vacant position, along with an interventionist position that was becoming vacant, would together have covered more than half the amount.
The town's Finance Committee has pushed for the school budget to absorb retiree insurance, which the school did last year, as well as wage withholding such as FICA.
"We've $119,000 extra in our budget for the school side," Franzoni explained. School officials had argued those costs should continue to be borne by the town because they cover town employees; the Finance Committee has said it's trying to right size budgets and ensure expenses and revenue are tracked within the departments from which they originate.
Franzoni said he had spoken with the school's attorney who said while it was unusual to put it into the school budget there did not appear to be any regulations on it.
Business Administrator Carrie Burnett said retiree health insurance this year had not been a line item, nor had it been formalized as one for next year. She said the town accountant was gathering documents so the line item could be linked to expenditures.
The superintendent said there seemed to be a sense on the town side that the school had a lot stashed away in the school choice account that could be tapped.
That account had $536,929 at the end of fiscal 2018, received $318,877 for this year and the school is projected to use $473,235 in this year. In past fiscal years, the school has used school choice to fund summer program salaries — pushing expenses into the next fiscal year — but the accountant had suggested encumbering funds to keep them in the same fiscal year.
That means Clarksburg has "double-funded" the summer program this year by covering last summer's salaries and encumbering $114,000 for this coming summer's salaries.
"We have taken an extra $200,000 out ... that's why we're up more than we usually are," Franzoni said. "We're projected to have $382,571 at the end of the year."
Based on projections of revenue and expenses from the school choice account, it should have about $324,249 at the end of fiscal 2020. The school and town agreed to keep a baseline of $300,000 in the account.
"Our cushion for that $300,000 is dwindling because we're using them to offset some of these expenses we're being asked to take on by the town," Franzoni said. "We're using the school choice money which the town asked us to do, the issue with that is that is not an equation you want to keep going with because the school choice won't be there anymore."
Barnes suggested opening more school choice slots and pulling $4,000-$5,000 from the kitchen's operating budget to purchase a point-of-sale system for the cafeteria. And possibly reorganizing how the kitchen is staffed.
"I personally feel like there's ways around that to have a win-win for both the town and the school," Barnes said of keeping the cafeteria operating. "I think there's a way to sustain for another year."
The superintendent said the school could increase class sizes, which is one of the recommendations in the school merger study. But he also cautioned that there are two votes coming up including asking voters to take on $1 million in borrowing for the town and school's infrastructure.
"I think we've got a lot coming up in terms of our merger vote, our debt exclusion vote, so we're just trying to show that we are making some adjustments on our end to try to work together to sustain our school and keep going forward," Franzoni said.
Editor's note: several points in the article were clarified on Monday, May 13, including that the school pays for snacks from NAPS, the cost savings would be in health insurance not wages, and that the cafeteria staff could apply for their posts through NAPS. iBerkshires regrets the errors.