School board passes nutrition services budget with new hire

By Nicole Guttermuth

Courier Staff

COUNTY — When School District of Pickens County student nutrition services director Sally Nicholson originally presented her budget to SDPC board trustees during the April 22 meeting, the board would not approve her budget for fiscal year 2014 based on surveys conducted throughout the district that rated the overall food quality and quantity poorly.

Nicholson was given a directive by board trustees to create a plan to improve food taste, quantity and quality before they would approve her budget.

“When you look at the employee surveys, employee satisfaction with the taste and quality of the food served in our cafeterias is very low (50 percent or below satisfaction). The issue was not being addressed by food services,” board trustee Alex Saitta said. “Sally has done a great job managing her department’s finances, but she has squeezed the system so hard that people are not satisfied with the services or the product.”

Nicholson’s improvement plan, as presented to the board on Monday night, includes hiring a culinary specialist (maximum salary of $63,000 per year and a $15,000 benefits package); a food cost increase of approximately $64,000; and indirect costs totaling roughly $10,000.

During Monday’s board meeting, trustees finally passed the SNS budget in a 3-2, vote with Ben Trotter and Jimmy Gillespie opposing.

Prior to the vote, Trotter said that he neither could nor would vote for a budget that included hiring a culinary specialist with a maximum possible salary of $63,000 per year, in addition to a benefits package worth approximately $15,000, when there are cafeteria workers throughout the SDPC who have not received even a cost of living raise in several years.

“There have been federally mandated price increases for lunches the past three years. Those price increases are generating $152,000 in additional revenue. If the students and employees were mandated to pay a higher price for meals, the meals should be improved,” Saitta said. “I didn’t want that windfall spent on just anything — napkins, unneeded new equipment or higher salaries for everyone. If students and employees are forced to pay more for meals, the meal they receive in return should be better.”

On Monday night, Nicholson presented her plan to SDPC trustees. She attributed the primary problem with food taste and quality to a lack of training when it comes to the preparation of quantity food.

“Because of USDA guidelines, we can’t simply add salt, sugar and butter to the food to improve the quality of taste,” said Nicholson. “We have to have someone who knows how to improve the quality by using herbs and spices that meet the standards and specifications of the USDA.”

In order to accomplish the goal she has been challenged to achieve — better tasting, better quality food — Nicholson has decided to hire a person whose focus will be on improving cafeteria food across the Pickens County School District.

“Hiring a person who specializes in food preparation to be out in the field providing hands-on training for all SNS staff will contribute greatly to enhancing the food quality, taste and choices,” said Nicholson. “This person would also create new recipes and train staff on how to prepare and present the items properly. We can have the best products, but if those products are not prepared and presented properly, we are not achieving our goal.”

Board trustee Jim Shelton said that Nicholson is an excellent manager who has earned his respect and trust over the years.

“The board instructed her to improve quality and services. If she improves quality and services, sales will go up,” said Shelton. “She has taken the board’s directive, and I am not going to question her. She has a vision and she is capable of accomplishing her goals. If she increases sales, she increases revenue for the district.”

Nicholson said hiring a culinary specialist will go a long way toward meeting her department’s goals.

“I was asked to improve food quality, food taste and food quantity, and adding money alone to the budget will not improve these areas,” said Nicholson. “We can’t do the same things over and over and then expect different results.”

The new motto for the SDPC’s SNS is “Good, better, best. We will not rest until the good becomes better and the better becomes best.”

Saitta said if he were creating the plan to improve food quality and taste, he’s not certain he would go in the same direction as Nicholson.

“Sally is the expert. She has been tasked by the board to meet this goal and improve the quality of food. I am somewhat doubtful that this is going to work,” said Saitta. “I’m not going to second-guess her. That would be micro-managing, and that is not our job as the school board. If after a year or two the satisfaction doesn’t improve, then this position will be eliminated, and another method tried to improve the taste of meals.”