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Tensions rose on Tuesday as the Toledo Board of Education debated a proposal advocated by one member to contract with a for-profit company to take over Toledo Public Schools food-service program.
It was, pardon the pun, a food fight.
The board’s food service committee, chaired by board member Larry Sykes, had requested proposals for an outside firm to handle the district’s food program. Philadelphia-based Aramark was the only company to respond, and it presented its plan Friday to the committee.
Mr. Sykes had planned to bring the proposal before the full board for a vote Tuesday, though he pre-emptively tabled the idea. It quickly appeared he didn’t have the votes anyway, as several board members lashed out at the idea of a for-profit company managing a district program.
Board President Brenda Hill objected to the implication that TPS staff couldn’t provide quality food and improve its services, noting that large deficits in the food service budget shrank in recent years. And she criticized lobbying efforts by Aramark in the community. The company has promised grants to and business for several Toledo organizations, including the African-American and Hispanic chambers of commerce, both of which had representatives at Tuesday’s meeting as a show of support for the proposal.
“This company came and went all around the city of Toledo and talked to everyone else before they came to us,” she said.
Mr. Sykes has framed the proposal as a partnership between TPS and Aramark that would allow for better food for students. The company has promised to invest in school kitchens so that each school can provide hot meals.
Mr. Sykes has criticized the quality of food served to students, said too many students are obese, and that the district wastes too much food.
“We can do a better job,” Mr. Sykes said.
Board members Cecelia Adams and Lisa Sobecki also strongly criticized the proposal, with Ms. Sobecki saying she opposed a for-profit company taking Toledoans’ jobs, a point argued by district union officials in recent weeks. That comment sparked a brief back and forth between her and Mr. Sykes, a not uncommon occurrence at board meetings.
The district has specified that if Aramark gets a contract, staff would remain TPS employees, and there would be no changes to wages or benefits. Mr. Sykes suggested that Ms. Sobecki hadn’t read the proposal, and was purposefully misconstruing it.
“You vote like you want, but don’t lie about something,” he said to Ms. Sobecki.
“Let’s not get personal,” Ms. Hill implored.
“It is personal,” Mr. Sykes replied.
The board also gave district administrators permission to negotiate leases with Toledo nonprofits for the use of three unused TPS properties. The City of Compassion Community Development Corporation wants to use the former Ryder and Fulton elementary sites for gardens, and Feed Lucas County Children Inc. wants to relocate to the former Washington School property.
The latter agency had originally asked for the property to be donated, but the resolution approved by the board was to negotiate a lease. The leases are subject to final board approval. The board voted four to one in favor of the negotiations, with Mr. Sykes — who expressed concerns about TPS liability if Feed Lucas County Children had financial struggles — opposed.