New Brunswick

Seaside Park School parents 'in disbelief' over choice for cafeteria provider

Parents of a new elementary school on the west side of Saint John say they feel "completely disregarded" over a decision to award a cafeteria service contract to Chartwells.

Parent support committee at Saint John school was asked for input on school lunches, then dismissed

Lori Anderson and Shane Cassidy were distressed to learn the research and outreach they carried out to find the best cafeteria provider for Seaside Park School was 'totally disregarded.' (Sarah Trainor/CBC)

Parents of a new elementary school on the west side of Saint John say they feel "completely disregarded" over a decision to award a one-year cafeteria service contract to Chartwells.

Anglophone School District South signed the final contract for Seaside Park Elementary School and Harbour View High School last week, amid protests from students and parents who are seeking a local, healthier option.

In the spring of 2015, parents from the newly formed Seaside parent school support committee were asked for input on school lunches, then later dismissed, said Lori Anderson, a member of the committee.

"It was a total disregard for the process," she said. "We went through what was dictated to us, as far as get your committee together, come up with a document that will be taken into consideration. And all for nothing.

"It is total disbelief. We were told to do A, B, C and D, and it was all done, and option F was chosen."

Anderson said a special school nutrition advisory committee committee was struck on the advice of Anglophone School District South, because they were in a unique position to craft the new cafeteria however they wanted.

Surveys went home to parents from the three merged schools — Havelock, Seawood and St. Patrick's School — last fall, and parents got to work compiling a list of what they wanted their cafeteria to look like.

They held presentations with members of the community, met with local businesses and explored forging a partnership with the Carleton Community Garden, said Shane Cassidy, a member of the nutrition advisory committee.

"One first criteria on the list was to have a local company do the catering," he said.

"We felt, for a number of reasons, we could work with local caterers more easily than a large corporation from South Carolina,"

Chartwells 'absolutely not' an option

The committee settled on a short list of three companies that could provide a healthy lunch for what it felt was a fair $3.50 price point, to meet the needs of families from all income levels.

Chartwells was not on their list, Cassidy said.

"Absolutely not," he said. "We had decided to go completely away from that large corporate structure. We wanted whole food, cooked on site, we wanted wholesome food with whole grains and colourful foods.

"All the things that kids at that age, not only should be eating, but should be taught to eat."

Left out of the process

The committee submitted its referral to the selection committee during the tendering process but was surprised to learn it carried little weight.

A government representative told the group that the proposal requests that met the minimum requirements would be assessed again for pricing, Anderson said.

"That was news to the people on the selection committee, because they thought once they came up with their top business, that's who would get the contract," she said. "That's not how it went."

The parents from Seaside Park have "had a lot of sleepless nights" since learning Chartwells won the contract, said Cassidy.

"This has been really distressing for us, having put so much effort into this, to find out that all the work we've done has been turned aside," he told Information Morning Saint John.

"It's disappointing the community put so much effort into making our new school something that we want it to be for our children, and disappointing that the decision process was taken away from the people closest to our children."

Hunt for accountability

Cassidy said the parents are following the lead of students from Harbour View and launched a petition to be presented to the legislature on Wednesday.

They also wrote letters to Education Minister Brian Kenny, Service New Brunswick Minister Serge Rousselle, and the district education committee.

Cassidy said the parents are on a frustrating hunt for accountability, because they don't know where the final say lies.

"It sounds like it's something we'll have to live with, but that doesn't mean we won't get ready for next year," he said.

'One bidder comes out on top'

In an email to CBC News, Zoë Watson, superintendent of Anglophone School District South, said it is the district that signs the final contract and "enters into the contract" with the service provider.

The process of evaluating the proposals runs through Service New Brunswick, she said.

"There is a request for proposals collected by SNB, and both a district committee and SNB complete separate parts of the evaluation process," Watson said.

"Our committee had both school and district representation to review the proposals. At the end of the evaluation process one bidder comes out at the top of the process."

'Positive meeting'

Watson says two students from Harbour View, and Michael Butler, the school principal, met on Tuesday with a representative from Chartwells, the director of schools for Saint John Centre, the district's director of finance and administration, and herself.

"I felt this was a very positive meeting to discuss concerns and what HVHS wants to see for their cafeteria going forward, she said.

"The Chartwells' representative is going to remain very involved with the school … Communication is key, and today it was very evident that everyone wants to work together to provide healthy food for students."

A similar meeting was planned for Seaside Park School on Wednesday morning, but the parents school committee members said they were given less than a day's notice to attend and could not make the meeting.

Chartwells already has the food service contract for 23 schools in the district.

With files from Information Morning Saint John