Dish soap, rinse agent, oven cleaner and sundry cleaning chemicals used in Haywood’s school cafeterias made headlines last year after a national company edged out a local one that was historically the go-to supplier.
Alison Francis, who is over Haywood school cafeterias, claimed the national company, EcoLab, was cheaper and the quality of cleaning products was better.
Bruce Johnson, owner of Champion Supply and an active business and civic leader in Haywood County, claimed at the time that the rushed bidding process was flawed and he wasn’t given an adequate chance to demonstrate that his products were just as good and less expensive than EcoLab’s.
With the start of school just a few weeks away last August, the school board went with Francis’ new pick of EcoLab, but promised Johnson verbally that before renewing the contract for the following school year he would have a chance to rebid.
That didn’t happen, however.
Last week, about two dozen cafeteria workers showed up at a school board meeting where Francis made a pitch to roll over the contract with the national company for another year.
“I think we need to listen to our staff. If that’s what they are telling us, that’s what we need to do,” School Board Member Lynn Milner said.
The cost difference between the two is essentially a wash. Francis claimed the EcoLab cleaning chemicals are slightly cheaper, and may clock in with several thousand dollars in savings over the course of the year compared to years when Johnson had the contract.
But an apples-to-apples cost comparison can be tricky. There are fewer students overall in the school system now compared to when the school system bought cleaning chemicals exclusively from Johnson — about 200 fewer students. And that could mean less meals being served, and fewer trays and dishes being washed. The occasional use of disposable trays and silverware would also have a bearing on the volume of cleaning chemicals being used.
But cost aside, cafeteria workers said they like the EcoLab cleaning chemicals better. They also like the smaller-sized packaging, which is easier to manage.
“Anything we can do to make their job a little bit easier is appreciated,” Francis told the school board.
Johnson was not contacted by anyone with the school system ahead of the vote. Johnson said he had still been under the impression he would be allowed to make a renewed case for next year’s contract.
Since the contract didn’t go out to bid until summer last time, Johnson didn’t know it was even being talked about yet, let alone that a decision would be made so soon without rebidding it as initially promised.
But Francis said there was another variable at play that made time of the essence this year. Haywood school cafeterias pool their purchases with Buncombe and Henderson county schools for better buying power on everything from food to cleaning supplies.
Buncombe’s cafeteria manager told Francis that Buncombe was going to keep buying from EcoLab, and if Haywood wanted to rebid on their end, they would be on their own.
“If you want me to rebid, I will not have the purchasing power of Buncombe and Henderson counties,” Francis told the school board last week.
The cafeteria workers who turned out in a show of solidarity for Francis and EcoLab clapped following the school board’s unanimous vote.