EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 1, 2013

Timberlane hopes to avoid food service debt

By Alex Lippa

---- — PLAISTOW — Routinely last year, Shirley Orio would send her kids to school in the Timberlane Regional School District and have them pay through her online account.

But she was shocked once she finally looked at her bill.

“Before I even realized it, I was over $150,” she said. “It’s just something you don’t routinely think about,”

But experiences like Orio’s more have cost the school district more than $45,000 on its food service program last year. This year, Superintendent Earl Metzler is planning on incorporating some changes to prevent that from happening again.

“We have undergone an important comprehensive review of our policy,” Metzler said. “Our goal is to break even on our contract and we need to make adjustments to do that.”

The district renegotiated its contract with Whitson’s Culinary Group last year after Timberlane’s debt was more than $90,000 at one point during its first year with Whitson’s.

“Last year, their take was 75 percent. That has been reduced to 65 percent,” Metzler said. “They didn’t have to do that, but now they have a real stake in the game.”

Metzler said officials will consider policy changes for families with negative balances. Currently, all negative balances remain on a student’s account from one year to the next.

They will also be emailing families who incur a negative balance.

Orio said the reason her family went over was a requirement that a child had to buy a complete meal, not just an a la carte item.

“My kids were buying both breakfast and lunch,” she said. “It caused us to go over the limit.”

Metzler said another reason for the large debt was due to service fees Timberlane had to pay each time a parent made a transaction. Each transaction cost the district about $2.75.

“We set ourselves up by taking on some of these expenses,” he said. “With 6,000 students, each transaction adds up quickly. If this is something we know we have to pay for, then we should budget it, so it’s not debt.”

Metzler said fixing the debt was a priority for him, but he did not want to sacrifice the quality of the food.

“We’re working with Whitson’s to make sure we get the absolute best price on everything,” he said. “But we want to still be able to get the freshest produce and buy from local providers when possible.”

Labor costs also were looked at.

“We are taking a really good look at what everything is costing us,” Metzler said. “That includes taking a look at hourly and overtime wages.”

Metzler said new recommendations for policies will be unveiled at a School Board meeting Thursday.