Food for thought on saving schools money

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john belushi food fight.jpg

Yesterday, the Globe’s Deirdre Fernandes reported on the spat between Newton North High School’s food contractor and the student-run Tiger’s Loft Bistro. The contractor, Whitsons Culinary Group, was sore about the school allowing a competitor to serve food in the building. After all was said and done, the school and the contractor made up, and the student-run bistro will re-open and be able to serve students once again.

There are two lessons to learn:

Businesses may like to talk about the need for competition, but they never like it when there is a direct competitor. That’s why for over a year, Whitsons sought a clause in its contract that barred competition. Not much of a news flash there, but it is always worth reminding ourselves that businesses are frequently not friends to free markets and competition.

As there is little news there, let’s move on to the second point. Outsourcing non-educational functions saves a lot of money for educational activities. In Fernandes’ piece there are a couple of paragraphs worth highlighting:

In the past, district officials have stressed that the contract with Whitson is saving Newton schools money. The district used to operate its own food services program and had to traditionally subsidized it at about $1 million annually. But since the program was privatized last year, costs have declined and by the 2014 fiscal year, the district won’t have to put any additional money into food services, Guryan said.

Newton is pleased with the number of meals being served by Whitsons and both the schools and the company are at least breaking even on the venture, Guryan said.

A million dollars is nothing to sneeze at, especially for the services rendered in a single (large) school. Makes me wonder how many school districts contract out food services. Ask your local officials what they are doing. It could save serious money that can go to the core work of schools—teaching and learning.

(But if you get your food services contracted out, make sure the firm in question does not get to bar the door for competitors.)

Crossposted at Boston.com’s Rock the Schoolhouse. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.