BR.newcharters.051917 750_4298.jpg

Carnell Washington, President of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, speaks passionately against Aramark during an EBR School Board meeting on Thursday, May 18, 2017.

Advocate photo by CAROLINE OURSO

Despite intermittent criticism during its 13 years in control, Philadelphia-based Aramark has been handing school maintenance and other support work for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, beating out 10 other companies that sought to take some or all of their business.

But Aramark and the school system still have to negotiate a new five-year contract. Superintendent Warren Drake said the talks will be extensive and involved.

Drake said he’s sending out an email to all principals and the business partners of Aramark to solicit their thoughts on ways to rewrite the contract. He also said he would keep board members abreast of what’s going on. His plan is to finalize negotiations by June 30 when Aramark’s current contract expires.

“I think the contract negotiations is the part where we really shape what we want going forward,” Drake said.

Since 2004, Aramark has overseen all custodial, plant operations and maintenance, grounds and facility management work for the school system. It currently receives more than $27 million a year.

Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the school system, recalled in 2004 the two sides spent three straight days in talks at a Hilton hotel.

“It’s a pretty intense process to get this done,” Rutledge said.

In its proposal, Aramark's overall price is $24.9 million, about $3 million less than currently. And the company is offering to add staff, especially in the area of building maintenance. That overall amount would rise to $26.9 million by the 2021-22 fiscal year. Aramark’s offer includes several other sweeteners, including a $7 million “targeted facility upgrade investment” the company plans to spend over the next five years.

The board on Thursday voted 7-1 to renew Aramark’s contract. Board member Connie Bernard was the lone vote against. Her opposition stemmed from her desire to not only be consulted, but to have the board vote on the final contract with Aramark before it goes into effect.                          

“I just want to make sure we get this right this time,” Bernard said.

Bernard’s motion to require that failed by a 3-5 margin, with only board members Evelyn Ware-Jackson and Jill Dyason voting with her. 

Board member Kenyetta Nelson-Smith said she has concerns too about Aramark, “a laundry list of issues,” but said she wants to give Drake a free hand to negotiate the best deal he can.

Drake’s decision to renew with Aramark was somewhat surprising. Since taking over as superintendent in June 2015, Drake has often been critical of the company. He immediately found fault with the condition of many school buildings he inherited and demanded more from Aramark. Rather than negotiate a renewal, as his predecessors have done, Drake in December decided to seek proposals from other companies.

On Thursday, Drake struck a more conciliatory note.

“In the past two years, Aramark has done everything I’ve asked them to do, so I think they deserve a chance to sit back down at the table,” Drake told the board Thursday.

Eleven companies submitted proposals this spring. Of those, five companies, including Aramark, proposed doing all the work requested. The other six companies sought only one area, custodial or groundskeeping.

Drake convened a seven-member, in-house committee to review the proposals which ended up interviewing seven applicants, rating each one.

In a letter Drake sent to the School Board Monday, the superintendent said he then narrowed the field to just three companies that offered to do everything: Aramark, Cleveland-based GCA Services Group and Houston-based Jacobs Field Services.

He said he did so after the committee came to a consensus “that our current practice of having a single provider was the best model for our school system.” The advantages included having a “single point of contact, clear accountability and responsibility, economies of scale, and the provision of coordinated services across the four categories listed herein-above,” Drake said.

Drake did not rely solely on the committee, opting to do his own investigation after they wrapped up.

“I vetted (the companies) carefully,” he said. “I called around the country to where people were working. I went to places where these companies worked.”

Of those three finalists, the committee gave Jacobs the highest score, followed by GCA and then Aramark. The committee used six different criteria to evaluate the companies. Cost was the biggest factor, representing 25 percent. That was followed by 20 percent each for the quality of the company’s program and the detail in the company's plan of action.

Drake, however, viewed all three companies as about the same level.

“All three companies were outstanding,” Drake said. “All three companies did an excellent job both in their presentation and in the written words in their proposals.”

Drake said that Jacobs works primarily with industrial clients, leading him to focus more on Aramark and GCA, which both do more work in educational settings. He said the fact that Aramark already works for the school system, making it the “incumbent,” played a role in his final decision.

Drake said he and other staff members learned a lot in seeing what all these companies had to offer, things he hopes to incorporate in the contract negotiations.

For instance, he plans to require Aramark to do more painting of school buildings, something it’s not required to do now. He also is tasking Larry Munson, director of facilities, to take a greater role in ensuring “quality control” in Aramark’s work. The tendency in the past, he said, has been to pass things off to Aramark and not follow up sufficiently.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier