BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP — More than 20 women will lose jobs with the Buena Regional School District if a plan to privatize cafeteria services moves forward, as it has it many districts across the state.

The Board of Education voted 6 to 4 in March to privatize food services in the district, which would mean laying off the 23 women who prepare food for almost 1,700 students in five schools. The board is expected to announce at Tuesday’s school budget hearing which company it will hire of three that submitted bids.

“These are among the lowest-paid employees, but they do get pensions,” said Buena Vista Township Mayor Chuck Chiarello. Most of the women live locally and make about $10 an hour.

“Once you privatize, their pensions are frozen. Those who are short of meeting requirements don’t get the full benefit,” said Chiarello, who opposes the move. If hired by the new company, they will likely make less money, he said.

It’s the second year the school board has taken a vote on cafeteria privatization. Last year the vote was a tie, which meant it failed. Both years the Buena Vista Township Committee and the Buena Borough Council passed resolutions opposing the move.

Supporters of privatization have said it will turn the cafeteria from a money-losing venture to a money-making one. Last year’s loss was almost $126,800 when all food service wages and benefits are charged to it.

“By regulation we are not allowed to budget money in the name of the cafeteria. That came into play four years ago,” said Superintendent Walt Whitaker. ”Food service and latch key — they are supposed to be from the state’s perspective stand alone and no cost to the taxpayer.”

More than half of the district’s kids are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, Whitaker said. The district gets a set amount from the federal and state governments to cover the cost of meals, but it’s not much.

“You would gag if planning your meals on that budget,” Whitaker said.

The committee estimated the cafeteria would make a $123,600 profit under one plan submitted by Chartwells, compared to about $67,000 if it goes with Aramark, $82,000 with Nutri-Serve, and $41,000 with another Chartwells plan with better wages built in, according to information on the district website.

The cafeteria workers, members of the Buena Regional Supportive Staff Association, agreed to take no pay increase when their last contract was negotiated three years ago, to try to save their jobs. The food service director and the head cooks in each school get health benefits, but the rest are part-time workers and do not.

Food Service Director Gina Merighi said that the option recommended by the board’s Food Service Committee to hire Chartwells would eliminate three kitchen jobs and cut most workers’ wages. The typical cafeteria worker at the high school now makes about $10 an hour, and would be cut to $8.50 to $8.75 per hour.

“It’s very depressing. These women work their butts off,” said high school Head Cook Beth Comunale, of Hammonton, as she prepared lunch Monday morning. If she is hired for her same position by Chartwells, her wages would fall from $16.06 an hour to $13.65, after 17 years in the district.

She mainly works for the benefits, she said, as she has a diabetic husband and a daughter with health issues.

High school food services worker Peggy Damon, of Buena Borough, said she has worked in the district seven years and has two children in local schools. The job allows her to be close to them and arrange her day around their schedules, but she hasn’t decided if she can work for less money.

Maria Nieves, of Buena Vista Township, said she must work close to home as she takes care of her ailing 85-year-old mother and her eighth-grade daughter who is vision impaired.

“I have no other choice,” she said, when asked if she would continue in the job for lower wages.

Whitaker said he hasn’t taken a position on privatizing but that the district has been struggling financially for about five years, with enrollments down five percent a year. More kids in sending districts Estell Manor and Weymouth Township are electing to attend the Atlantic County Institute of Technology now that it offers a full-time program, he said. That has meant less tuition income, even as other costs increase.

This year four teaching positions are being eliminated, yet the tax levy is going up 2.9 percent, mainly because of the increasing cost of medical benefits. The district had to get special permission from the state to increase its tax levy by more than 2 percent, Whitaker said.

Board of Education member Bob James said he personally does not favor privatization, because of poor experiences with it several years ago when the custodial staff was briefly subcontracted. The district returned to having its own staff when the job was performed poorly.

“And we have it now with the busing,” James said, of the district’s more recent privatizing bus transport. “I still hear complaints from the public about problems.”

The district brought Nutri-Serve in to manage cafeteria operations about five years ago, but was unhappy with the company and didn’t renew the contract, Merighi said.

Almost 90 percent of the cafeteria workers live in Buena Vista Township and Buena Borough, according to the New Jersey Education Association.

“That bothers me when the economy is so bad, and times so rough, we are making an attack on local families — our own local citizens and taxpayers,” Chiarello said.

The district paid the women to work their regular hours cooking for evacuees when the middle and high schools became emergency shelters during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, even though school was closed, said Merighi. It is unclear if workers for a private company would be available in a future emergency.

A 2009 survey of New Jersey school districts found that more than 82 percent of those responding indicated that they fully subcontract one or more services: Food services (38.4%); Maintenance, buildings and grounds, custodial services (24.5%); Transportation (20.3%); Other, including business office operations, child study teams, occupational/physical therapy, security and technology (16.9%).

Out of 594 school districts in the state, 238 responded and reported saving a total of $38.8 million annually by subcontracting, the NJSBA said.

According to the report “Hard to Swallow: Do Private Food Service Contractors Shortchange New Jersey Schools?” by Tom MacDermott of the Clarion Group, about 64 percent of the state’s schools have outsourced food services, compared to just 13 percent nationally.

About a year ago Governor Chris Christie vetoed a union-backed bill that would have made it more difficult for a school board to subcontract services.

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:

609-272-7219

Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.