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Sodexo, a facilities management service corporation, narrowly missed getting the contract for support and maintenance staffing at Putnam City Public Schools in a 2-3 vote Monday.

The contract proposal was for $10.4 million, 8% of the district’s yearly budget. Had it passed, the move would have affected 250 employees of the district, some of whom had been working in the district for over 20 years.

Current staff who would have had to apply to Sodexo and enter into a new work relationship even after decades of service were relieved but much more distrustful of the district after the scare.

The close vote came after many hours had been invested by the district’s legal counsel Laura Holmes and several others in the administration to prepare the proposal.

Still, three out of the five board members believed it was a rushed process for the board with too many loose ends still to be secured after the vote.

Sodexo has grown over the years contracting with big institutions like schools and hospitals to provide turn-key operations of all housekeeping, custodial, and maintenance services. The corporation also provides contract food service.

PCPS already has an existing contract with Sodexo for food services in its school cafeterias.

Some Putnam City Public Schools support staff picket outside the district’s administration offices before the virtual Board of Education meeting started. (BRETT DICKERSON/Okla City Free Press)

Employees picketing

Before the meeting about 30-40 support employees picketed the administration building although most on the virtual board meeting were not even in the building.

Roger Dodd has been with the district as a custodian for 22 years.

“We feel like we’re being betrayed by a district we stood behind during budget cuts, staff cuts, no raises for three years,” Dodd told Free Press at the picketing action. “And then, the year that they promised to pay our retirement is the year that they’re outsourcing our jobs.”

After the vote he told us that the employees he knew were “very happy with the vote.”

And, if anyone quietly wanted to avoid any more of the employees belonging to the Oklahoma Education Association the move backfired from the bad feelings and distrust the effort created among the employees.

“Most of us have decided to join the OEA union,” Dodd told us after the meeting.

Our video of several interviews we did with protesting support and maintenance staff at the district administration offices Monday afternoon can be viewed HERE.

Pension dodge?

The chair, Gail LoPresto was one of those votes against the contract.

She had reservations because of the harm to employee’s pension position.

Three years ago the district promised support staff that if they paid into the Oklahoma Teacher’s Retirement System for the next three years then the district would pick pay into the system for them from that point on.

July 1, when the next fiscal year begins, would have been the beginning of that part of the arrangement.

Employees Free Press talked to believed that the district was simply trying to save themselves money by switching them over to Sodexo’s 401k retirement system. They felt betrayed by the idea.

And it seemed that LoPresto believed it was wrong, also.

“I keep hearing this and I kept thinking, why are people making such a big deal out of this? And then, all of a sudden, it dawned on me the difference between being in a retirement plan and being in a 401k,” said LoPresto.

The yield on the money the district would pull out and put in a 401k under Sodexo would be smaller than if it went on into eventual vesting in the State Teacher Retirement system that would produce a defined benefit after retirement.

401k rules over the years since the pension savings mechanism was put in place have increasingly made the plans more beneficial to employers than to the employees as well as being highly susceptible to stock and bond market fluctuations. Payouts after retirement are also much smaller than traditional pension plans.

Other objections

LoPresto also was reluctant because she didn’t think there had been nearly enough time for school district patrons or even the employees to weigh in on the matter.

Board member Jay Sherrill objected to the parts of the contract that were not even complete. He didn’t want to vote on something that was so rushed they would have to hammer out some details after the vote.

Putnam City Board of Education
Putnam City Public Schools Board of Education during a virtual meeting Monday, June 22. (BRETT DICKERSON/Okla City Free Press)

In favor

But, board member Becky Gooch was in favor of the contract believing that the work Sodexo would manage would be better done from them.

“I think it’s important that we remember that we have major issues in the district as far as buildings and grounds,” said Gooch.

She argued that “it’s embarrassing to me to drive by the stadium at PC North and see weeds taller than the shrubs.”

Gooch also said that out of the 250 employees that this would affect, only 14 had emailed her and three had called about their reservations. She argued that she had heard more positive comments from employees in the group affected than those who were against.

She also said that the district could not provide college tuition reimbursement or the better insurance packages like Sodexo could.

In the end her point was that there were far more of the 250 employees who wanted the change than did not.

“I know we have a vocal few that are going to be upset if we do do this,” Gooch said. “So we’re also going to have a very big group of people disappointed [if the vote is against], and I for one will be one of them.”

But, in the end the vote went against those who wanted to enter the contract with Sodexo at least for the upcoming fiscal year.

Superintendent’s response

After adjournment, PCPS Superintendent Dr. Fred Rhodes issued a statement about the idea and decision.

“We appreciate all the efforts of everyone involved in the process of drafting an agreement to look at the concept of Sodexo managing District facilities,” said Rhodes. The Sodexo people have been great to work with on this!”

Last Updated June 22, 2020, 10:56 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor