Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'I've never had a job that fed me so well'

WSD trustee wants to end policy of free meals

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A Winnipeg School Division trustee is looking for a food fight.

Trustee Mike Babinsky is putting forward a motion that the school division no longer provide free catered meals for trustees and senior administration during meetings. The meals in question, elaborate spreads for the approximately 20 people in attendance for the meetings, often serve more food than people can eat, Babinsky said, leading him to wonder why the board is bothering with the free lunch in the first place.

"I've never had a job that fed me so well," said Babinsky, whose motion will be discussed at the end of the finance committee meeting Monday. "And I don't think it's right. We've had meetings over the last month or two that have lasted an hour."

The meetings, which happen at both lunch and at supper hours throughout the school year, typically only last 90 minutes, with the exceptions falling into the 2- to 21/2-hour range.

What's for dinner? Chicken souvlaki, lemon potatoes, baked vegetables, grilled vegetables, Caesar salad, garlic bread, roast beef, sandwich wraps, vegetable and fruit platters, desserts and dainties -- those are just some of the menu items Babinsky listed Friday afternoon. Often times the grub is too plentiful for the members, and most of it gets taken home or in some cases thrown out.

"If I were to take it home, I would have food for the rest of the week, not just the next day," he said. "I don't know who they're ordering for... it feels like they're ordering for 50 people."

Babinsky said he hasn't feasted on the catered meals in 10 years. He wasn't sure how much money would be added to the WSD's coffers by cutting off the food supply, but did say there is a meal provided for each board meeting.

Some simple math: There are 28 approved meetings (17 regular, nine special) listed on the WSD website. Calls into restaurants around the city indicate it would be anywhere from $12 to $20 a head for a catered meal, putting the dinner bill at roughly $240 to $400 per meeting. Pull up a seat at the head WSD table 28 times, and the cheque rings in between $6,720 and $11,200 annually.

That's not including tips.

It's money that could be digested elsewhere, Babinsky claims.

Want coffee or tea? Fine. If someone wants to brown-bag it, please go right ahead. He is simply looking for a different kind of belt-tightening from the WSD trustees and administration.

"This is taxpayer money that's being used here," he said. "But what really gets me is the lack of leadership. These are tight times financially, taxes are going up, and we should be setting a better example."

A call to WSD chairwoman Rita Hildahl for comment on the meal matter was not returned.

Babinsky's motion was initially introduced May 6, but was referred to a finance committee for further discussion. The finance committee will discuss the motion Monday. It could be voted on as early as June 17.

Also being discussed at Monday's finance meeting is a motion for the board to be "more transparent and open to the public" and that the Winnipeg School Division no longer hold budget meetings behind closed doors.

Babinsky's latest salvo against his peers comes less than a week after he called out the board for its decision to not record trustee votes. His motion to change how the board distributes news of its discussions -- in his words, to rid itself of the "smokescreen" that comes between the organization and the public -- was voted down last Monday.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2013 A13

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