Frazee School District opts to dump contracts for janitorial and food services — goes back to district employees

/ 18 May 2012 / jennifer

Pippi Mayfield, Detroit Lakes Online, May 18, 2012 –

Two years ago, the Frazee-Vergas School Board decided to contract with an outside company for custodial services.

Last year, the board made the same decision with its food service. Both decisions were spurred by retirements within the departments.

But instead of continuing those contracts, which were up for renewal this year, the board opted to go back to in-house management and services.

“I think they apparently decided on kind of short notice last spring that, ‘OK, we’re going to look at whether or not a couple people or food service companies (might work), and put a request for proposals out there and see where it goes,’” said Frazee-Vergas Superintendent Chuck Cheney.

The school board and the administration have changed since the original decisions were made on both the Chartwells food service and Marsden janitorial contracts.

There were several difficult issues surrounding the food service decision at the time, Cheney said.

Head cook Rita Slupe was retiring. There were lots of changes in state and federal guidelines coming as to what could be served, or what had to be served, to students. And, the district has to stay within certain guidelines to qualify for free and reduced reimbursement, too.

“During that process, which was a little speedy in my mind, the issue that came up was the idea that … OK, this company is coming in and telling us we can make a profit of $39,000,” Cheney said.

“There were a few board members that admittedly, and probably appropriately, made a decision to go with the Chartwells folks” based on the cost savings, Cheney said. “I think they found it hard to vote against that.”

But that $39,000 savings didn’t materialize — the district only saved about $3,000. Chartwells said that’s because there were unexpected costs that weren’t included in the RFP and that the $39,000 was never a guarantee.

The board opted not to renew the Chartwells contract last week.

“They introduced some nice things,” Cheney said of Chartwells. “We gained some things from that. Whenever something new comes along, you learn some things.

“We’ve learned some things and now we can go back to doing it ourselves and open our arms to a little more diverse thinking and really use some of the learning. From that, we’re going to benefit.”

Though many of the cooks continued to be district employees, they were managed by Chartwells. The same goes for Marsden, the company that took over the custodial contract two years ago.

Any new employees that were hired were employees of Chartwells or Marsden. Cheney said the system of being paid by one entity and being managed by another never worked out well — for food or custodial services.

“From a management perspective, it really didn’t ever work as well as it should have,” Cheney said, especially of Marsden.

“The notion of the district folks, how accountable are they to the Marsden folks? There was never a good connection there between the Marsden leadership and the Marsden folks, and the district folks who had been here prior to that.”

Cheney said he heard both sides of the question — should the district go back to its own food management or should it stick with Chartwells?

“Ultimately, I think it came down to, we’ll go back to our own program and get involved with the kind of help we need and make it more local.”

With Marsden, which was a two-year contract, there was a similar reason for looking into a contract company: long-time employees retiring.

After improvements to the HVAC system, the district had higher tech needs as well.

Cheney said that he had heard the school wasn’t up to par in cleanliness either and could’ve used a boost in that department.

“This district, like any, wanted to make sure we’re making a good impression on the public — safe and clean and nice atmosphere for our kids and teachers.

“There was a notion that there were improvements we could make.”

Cheney said ending contracts, especially with Marsden, likely has something to do with the shift in school board members, too.

“There was a little bit of the past involved in (the decision to not renew) as well,” he said. “I think there were some board members who maybe didn’t support the Marsden thing as highly as others. And that was a completely different board that made the decision to go with them.”

Though it was a similar situation to contract both services, they were two different matters and two different reasons for signing the contracts. But, they resulted in the same ending — non-renewal.

“I think there was local pressure saying, look, there are people in the community who can do these jobs,” Cheney said.

Since the call for custodians has gone out, Cheney’s gotten 16-17 applications for the custodial positions available, and he’ll be hiring for the months of June and July to get people in place by Aug. 1.

Many of the food service people that are already with the district will stay and be district employees. Any positions that need to be filled will be as well.

Thankfully for the summer, Cheney said, there isn’t such an immediate rush to hire and get people in place as if this all took place mid-school year. It could even save the district some money by not having a full staff right away.

When the school board signed on with both contracts, there were district employees upset over the decision. Some even quit in protest.

Cheney said it’s still too early to see if the decision to back away from contracted services will be more accepted because the contracts haven’t quite come to an end.

Marsden will be finished the end of May, and Chartwells is essentially finished Tuesday, the last day of school.

“I think there’s a notion that we should keep it local as much as we can. When you contract for services, there’s always that idea of how much capital is flowing out of the community that could maybe stay in the community.”

Not to mention a downward turn in the economy didn’t help either.

The decisions to have all in-house services again can be seen as a good move for a school in a small community, he said.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.