School food service manager resigns

School budget frozen to contain deficit
Wed, 11/27/2019 - 5:45pm

In a candid letter announcing her resignation, Cindy Kelly, the School Food Service Manager for the Block Island School, raised issues of sanitation, questionable food handling practices and under-staffing in the school’s lunch program.

The letter did not give an effective date of her resignation. Kelly suggested that the vacancy be posted immediately, and said she was willing to stay on the job to train her successor, even through the end of the school year. She was clear, however, that she will not be returning in September 2020.

Superintendent Michael Convery told the New Shoreham School Committee at its November 12 meeting that Chartwells, the school’s contracted food service management company, had begun the process of hiring Kelly’s replacement. “Miss Kelly has been a tremendous asset to the school and she will be greatly missed,” he added. The committee accepted Kelly’s resignation with regret.

“I’m not willing to compromise”

In her Sept. 29 letter to the school administration, Kelly said: “(I)n a nutshell, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am not a good fit for this position.” She went on to say she had “discovered that managing the lunch program, maintaining a clean and organized facility” and managing all the necessary administrative tasks “while cooking food from scratch is too much for myself and one part-time employee.” Although the lunch program staff has also had volunteer assistance, Kelly said that “relying on a small pool of volunteers to do tasks that are necessary to keep things running smoothly is not sustainable. They don’t always show up, and shouldn’t be expected to.”

“I put in an inordinate number of hours off the clock to keep the operation at a level that I consider acceptable,” the letter continues. “I care deeply about promoting good health, which is not only dependent on wholesome cooking but also on the cleanliness of the kitchen and the proper handling of ingredients from delivery all the way to the serving tray. Because I’m not willing to compromise on any details, I’ve chosen to do whatever it takes to keep this promise to myself, working many hours without pay since my first day on the job.”

Rather than working overtime, which Chartwells prohibits her from doing, Kelly wrote she has worked eight hours a day “without taking lunch or any other breaks” at the school and then wrote menus and supply orders and completed other required tasks “(o)n my own time on my home computer... And, less glamorously, I take the dirty rags and aprons home to launder.”

Kelly admitted she had set high standards for herself and the school’s lunch program. “When I was interviewed for the job, I said that I would only be interested if I was able to offer whole food, meaning I am not willing to serve the children processed, packaged or unhealthy meals.” The reality was somewhat different. She cited a survey of parents conducted in summer 2019 by Principal Kristine Monje: “Most who responded... said their children wanted hot dogs, grilled cheese and pizza. I’ve included more of these items in my menu planning this year along with daily healthier choices. A food service manager with a more lenient food philosophy (and who is less particular about cleanliness) would likely be able to work fewer hours. But I am not willing to compromise.”

A goodbye, and grease

Kelly ended her letter thanking the superintendent and principal for their support. “It is a real pleasure being a small piece of the puzzle and witnessing the good work you all do at the Block Island School. As I said, there are many gratifying aspects to this job... and I absolutely love the children.”

Keeping the school kitchen’s grease trap clean and functioning has not been gratifying. In a postscript, Kelly bluntly described her extra work maintaining the unit, removing “decaying food and grease” daily and scrubbing it weekly. “I don’t know when the unit was purchased but evidence shows that it has never worked properly (the grease receptacle is clean as new),” she wrote.

Kelly said she had had “countless conversations” with tradesmen, with the town’s facilities manager, Sam Bird, and with a Sewer Commission employee about the grease trap, but without finding a solution. Grease traps prevent fats, oils, and greases from flowing out with the wastewater into the sanitary sewer system. They are required in commercial establishments that prepare food, such as restaurants and school cafeterias.

Overspending leads to budget freeze

Kelly’s resignation overshadowed Convery’s recommendation to freeze the school budget for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, based on the projected overspending numbers presented to the committee at its Oct. 29 meeting. 

As of Sept. 30, the school projected a deficit of $132,662 for the current year, due mostly to unplanned expenses. The largest of these is what Convery called “an unexpected out of district tuition” of $120,000, apparently for one or more students placed in a residential program. The tuition will be partially offset by about $20,000 in new Medicaid reimbursements, according to School Finance Director Melanie Reeves. Other factors include increases in salary, benefits and employment taxes for teachers included in the union contract (finalized after the budget was prepared) and additional legal expenses to defend the School Committee against litigation.