Mascoma lunchroom firing causes uproar

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/13/2019 10:12:49 PM

WEST CANAAN — For five years, Bonnie Kimball drove from her home in Canaan Village to Mascoma Valley Regional High School to man its main lunch line.

Kimball would operate the cash register, sell drinks and make smoothies and ice cream sundaes for the school’s 326 students. She also listened to their problems, gave injured sports stars ice and attempted to cheer up those considering dropping out.

“We didn’t even call it work,” Kimball said during an interview at her home last month. “We got up in the morning, we took care of our families and we went to take care of the kids.”

That was until March 28, Kimball says, when she was fired by vendor Cafe Services for letting a student have a lunch even though his account had no money in it.

The incident has since drawn attention to Cafe Services, the Manchester-based company responsible for Mascoma’s food service under its Fresh Picks Cafe subsidiary, and whose contract is expiring.

The School Board will decide on Tuesday night whether to continue with Cafe Services, or go with a competitor.

Kimball said her firing came at a time of heightened tension in the company. The Abbey Group, a rival food service company, was due to observe the Mascoma High kitchen operation on March 28, and Cafe Servi ces was keeping a close watch on employees, she said.

Cafe Services had sent a district manager, who Kimball said observed her interaction with a student at the register.

“When I rang him up, the student didn’t have any money on their account,” Kimball said. “So, I have a district manager here, my boss has told me ‘Don’t cause any scenes with the contract’ and I quietly said ‘tell (your) mom you need money.’ ”

The student replied “OK, will do” and went to eat, Meanwhile, the manager only asked what the student had on his plate before walking away, Kimball said.

The next day, after the Abbey Group visit, Kimball was called into his office and terminated, she said.

“It was my life for five years. I went and I took care of another family,” she said. “You don’t just lose a family member, be OK and move on.”

The incident angered some of Kimball’s co-workers, who quit in protest, and some members of the Mascoma community have come to Kimball’s defense.

“These guys really took care of our kids. They put our kids first and their focus was really our kids,” said Christina Moodie, whose son attends the high school.

“I know Bonnie went above and beyond for the kids,” said Moodie, who wants to see Kimball offered her job back.

Cafe Services also saw Kimball as a “very important member” of its Mascoma team until recently, according to her annual review completed March 4.

“Bonnie is very dependable and reliable,” wrote her supervisor. “She is willing to work extra hours to cover other’s time away and is willing to help with special functions.”

The review, which Kimball shared with the Valley News, goes on to commend her for creating a smoothie program at the high school, but faults her for occasionally becoming “visibly frustrated.”

Phone messages requesting comment from Manchester-based Cafe Services were not returned last week.

However, the company appeared to confirm Kimball’s story in an April 9 letter explaining the termination to her.

“On March 28, a District manager was on-site and witnessed a student coming through the line with multiple food items that you did not charge him for,” said the letter, which Kimball shared with the Valley News. “This is a strict violation of our Cash Handling Procedures, the Schools Charge Policy and Federal Regulation governing free meals.”

The incident has upset Kimball, who now worries about her reputation in Canaan. While she can help her fiance’s vending business over the summer, Kimball hasn’t yet lined up a job for next fall.

“I’m just dealing with so much right now: the public, paperwork. One minute I’m mad and the next minute, I just want to forget it all happened,” she said. “I guess I’m mourning my job.”

Kimball is adamant that what happened to her isn’t the school district’s fault, though. She said she’s received encouragement from officials there.

“I really don’t have anything to add, as horrible as that is to say,” Interim Superintendent Amanda Isabelle said when asked about Kimball last week.

Isabelle went on to call Kimball’s firing a “difficult situation,” and added Mascoma does appreciate her years of work.

But it’s unclear whether Kimball’s firing will play into the School Board’s selection of a food services vendor.

Cafe Services submitted a bid last week projecting it could generate $564,142 in revenue supplying food to Mascoma students, with about $16,360 of that going directly to the school district.

Meanwhile, the Sheldon, Vt.-based Abbey Group believes it could see revenue of $578,892, but only $67 would be turned over to the district.

Mascoma Business Administrator Debra Ford said the district needs to sign a one-year contract, which it will have the ability to renew up to four times before going out to bid again. Taxes aren’t used to pay food service vendors, which pay the district with sales surpluses, she said.

School Board Vice Chairman Timothy Josephson said last week that Kimball’s departure is unlikely to affect his vote. “The person is a Cafe Services employee,” said Josephson, who represents Canaan.

Messages left for School Board Chairwoman Cookie Hebert, of Dorchester, were not returned.

The Mascoma Regional School Board is scheduled to discuss its food service contract at 6 p.m. tonight at the Mascoma Valley Regional High School library.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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