The upcoming school year could be make-or-break for Pierson’s cafeteria. Based on an audit completed earlier this month which showed a loss of $49,000 and only 11 percent of the students purchasing lunches, the Sag Harbor Board of Education chose to eliminate a position in hopes of breaking even next time around.
Board president Walter Wilcoxen said one of the positions “had to go” and the board did not think a school lunch coordinator was needed. The result was the termination of Paula Brannon who has been a part of the lunch program at the school since 2002 and whose salary with benefits for the 2007-2008 school year was close to the amount the program was in the red. This was the first year that a school lunch coordinator salary was included in the cafeteria budget.
Wilcoxen said the board did not necessarily believe the move would mean the program would make money this year, but that it hopefully would keep it out of the red.
“If we get to this time next year and we have the same problem, then people have to seriously question whether this is a viable option. This is an attempt at getting this thing to work,” said Wilcoxen. “Ultimately the system may fail. Ultimately we may not have a lunch program at the school [in the future].”
Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said on Tuesday that both he and the board believed three, rather than four, people could do the job and said he had no intention to fill Brannon’s position.
“From the consumer standpoint,” said Gratto, “nothing will change. The students will still get good quality food at the same price.”
A full lunch costs $3.25 and last year the program averaged 110 lunches a day.
Prior to last year the district had contracted with a food service provider for the program but last summer the decision was made to attempt to provide the service in-house. In order to do that, two full time positions, a head cook and a prep cook, and one part-time position, a cashier, were added. All of the positions were hourly and did not include benefits. Brannon, who had been the lunchroom manager the previous year when the food service provider, Whitson’s, ran the program, and a cashier before that, took a civil service test in order to fill the school lunch coordinator position which included a salary plus benefits.
“[The position] entailed a lot of the paper work, record keeping, ordering of food and supervising,” said Brannon.
Gratto said the plan was to have the head cook trained in the paperwork aspect of Brannon’s position, as well as the ordering of the food.
“I think the head cook can do those things,” he said. “If a cook prepares the meals, they need to know the inventory.”
Last year, the head cook was Lisa Becker who was hired at $22 an hour. Currently the position is empty because it was only a one-year appointment. Gratto said Becker would be reappointed at the August 11 board meeting. On top of her cooking duties, Becker will now also be in charge of the paperwork relating to the state’s reimbursable lunch program. Brannon said she was a little confused by the board’s actions, particularly because she is the only person on staff who is cross trained in all areas including the paperwork as well as food preparation.
“I think it can be done with three people,” said Brannon. “But they will have to do some pedaling when it comes to learning to do the paperwork. They may be cutting their nose off to spite their face.”
Last summer, as the board was deciding whether or not to re-contract with Whitson’s or create an in-house program, the district missed the opportunity to take advantage of a regional cooperative bidding program for food purchasing. Gratto believes that by taking advantage of that opportunity this year, cost savings could be realized.
As for Brannon, she will continue to be employed by the district as the middle and high school play director. She is also the senior class advisor for next year. However she will not be in the lunchroom on a daily basis.
“I’ve been there for six years and I’ve put blood, sweat and tears into that district,” she said. “It’s going to be very hard to keep in close contact with the students.”
Photo: Sag Harbor Board of Education President Walter Wilcoxen