Santa Barbara Unified Looks at Laying Off Food Service Workers

School Board Punts on Voting to Cut 40 of Program’s 123 Classified Positions

A Santa Barbara Unified Food Service employee passes off a free meal to a child amid COVID-19 school closures. Although school campuses have closed until the pandemic subsides, Food Services is still operating and preparing meals for students. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

The jobs of about 20 or so food service workers in the Santa Barbara Unified School District were spared Tuesday night amid a push for layoffs — at least for now.

The school board has received reports since December that the district’s Food Services program was over budget and beginning to drain the general fund, much of which funds academic instruction. Up until this point, Meg Jetté, the assistant superintendent of the district’s Business Services, has said that the district’s partnerships with nonprofits and other stakeholders all over the county and its mission to feed people outside of the district has run the program into the red.

Tuesday night, however, Jetté and Superintendent Cary Matsuoka presented a new report that points to overstaffing as a major cost overrun. The report said the department is overstaffed by 24 percent and as a result, the district loses $25,000 every day. 

They proposed laying off about 20 food service workers now, half of the approximately 40 workers they would later lay off in phases. The proposed layoffs are in phases in order to restructure the department, including adding a new layer of managers.

“As board president, I recommended that this item not be voted on tonight,” said Laura Capps. “It’s of such weight to be considering layoffs during this unchartered time of a pandemic that I believed our board deserved to have a report and an opportunity to discuss it before voting. This has serious life implications for our staff.”

Most of the boardmembers voiced their uneasiness with passing the proposal. Members of the public and district food service workers appeared to be unaware the monumental choice was on the table because none spoke during public comment.

“In all honesty, [I don’t like] the thought of cutting our employees at a time when we are so impacted by this virus and it will be a struggle for them to find jobs, but at the same time, I realize we are like a sieve just leaking, constantly, thousands and thousands of dollars,” said Boardmember Jacqueline Reid. “I’m really grappling with this.”

Food Services currently has 123 classified employees, all of which are permanent except for five hourly employees. There are 15 lead positions, with the remaining employee positions ranging from dish washers to skilled cooks. 

The issue at hand is that the leads are also classified employees, so they are technically unable to supervise other employees, which leaves one person to manage all 123 people. The reorganization proposal aims to create six “true” managers that can oversee staff, but the reorganization cannot be done without the layoffs.

The report cited the lack of management and overstaffing as contributing to employees working below their potential. It said there are “inefficiencies based upon overstaffing abound,” and added, “We had an employee take 2.5 hours to separate lettuce.” It uses the Meals per Labor Hour Calculation to determine how many employees should be needed to create 19 meals per hour — what is considered ideal for the district’s scratch-food kitchens. Food Services currently churns out 12 meals per hour.

“I need us to take action at some point. We have brought these to you in December and February; we know there’s a problem,” Matsuoka said to the board after most members voiced their preference to move the vote back. “At some point, I’m asking, when can the board take action?”

Wendy Sims-Moten was the standalone boardmember who agreed with Matsuoka and Jetté and pushed for the board to vote Tuesday night rather than putting it off until May. She was coming from a fiscal focus, she said, and agreed that the board had received enough reports about the topic that they could come to a vote right then and there. She also said the public’s participation would only grow and hinder their ability to take care of the issue sooner.

“I wonder about public opinion now between this time and what could further push the vote out,” Sims-Moten said. “I’m not trying to dismiss or mitigate our process, but I’m also trying to take into account our environment. When we’re trying to make a move as a board we feel we should make, but the further we push it out it will invite public comment that puts us way more out.”

The board unanimously agreed to come back and vote on the proposal at its next May 12 meeting. They requested Matsuoka and Jetté come back with specific job descriptions for the new management positions at that meeting, and also enumerating every alternative possibility that was considered before layoffs.

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