MONROE, CT — A global pandemic is causing uncertainty over what the needs of the school lunch program will be next fall, so the Board of Education decided to take advantage of a federal bid waiver to extend the contract with its food provider by one year.
As Monroe public schools grapple with a looming deficit in the school lunch program, caused by remote and hybrid learning this year, Sodexo’s executives have been working with the district, capping and waiving their fees to help close any shortfall and break even by the end of the year.
If the contract were to go out to bid, Chairman Donna Lane said the district may not end up with a partner as willing to work with them as much as Sodexo has during the pandemic.
“I think it goes to the old phrase, ‘the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know,'” she said at Tuesday’s board meeting, before looking at Sodexo executives in the room and adding, “Sorry, no offense,” as people gathered in the Masuk High School media center erupted into laughter.
Lane said she simply meant the board knows what it has in Sodexo.
Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza expressed support for the Nationwide Waiver of Food Service Management Contract in the National School Lunch Program.
He said the district could enter a new contract for 182-days worth of meals, only to be forced into hybrid or remote learning again next year and running up a deficit in the lunch program.
“I think the USDA is offering this waiver to try to protect us,” Kobza said before the board vote.
Not all board members agreed on the waiver.
Nick Kapoor said he had consistently voted against no bid contracts when he served on the Town Council, though he acknowledged this is a different situation.
“I will vote to not agree to the waiver, whether it’s tonight or next meeting,” he said.
“I’m going to agree with Nick,” David Ferris said. “It’s not any negative comment to Sodexo, but I think it’s good fiscal policy to put things out to bid now and then. That’s how I feel.”
To “play devil’s advocate,” Lane outlined the reasons to support the waiver, including having a vendor unwilling to safeguard the district in a COVID situation and possibly having a worse situation by entering into a new contract without accurate data.
Jerry Stevens, a board member, said the district could end up paying another company more or Sodexo could place a higher bid.
“You could also have someone come in lower,” Kapoor said.
“You could be paying full price and have full remote next year,” Lane said. “I assume Alan would continue to work with us,” she added, referring to Alan Dean, district manager of Sodexo Education School Services.
Shannon Monaco, a board member, asked what happened the last time the district sent out a request for proposals for the school lunch program.
Lane said Chartwells and Sodexo were the only two companies to place bids. But the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) form was incorrect and the state made the district re-bid the contract. Then Sodexo was the only bid, Lane recalled.
The board approved the bid waiver by a vote of 6 to 3, with Lane, Monaco, Stevens, Christina Cascella, Dr. Alan Vaglivelo and Vice Chairman George King III voting in favor and Ferris, Jeff Fulchino and Kapoor against.