State College School Board Votes Down Papa John's Pizza Bid
September 10, 2019 11:30 AM
by Geoff Rushton
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For the second consecutive year, pizza from a local Papa John's franchise won't be on the menu in State College Area schools following the use of a racial slur in 2018 by the national corporation's founder and former CEO John Schnatter.

The school board voted 6-3 on Monday night to reject the bid from Bajco Global Management, which operates the State College Papa John's franchises, to be the vendor for elementary and middle school pizza days, a role it previously held for 15 years. A year ago, district administrators recommended and the school board approved canceling the pizza contract with Papa John's after it was revealed Schnatter used the slur during a conference call, saying the contract would conflict with the district's School Climate and Inclusive Excellence Policy.

On Monday, Board members Amber Concepcion, Amy Bader,  Lori Bedell, Gretchen Brandt, Dan Duffy and Laurel Zydney voted against the bid. Scott Fozard, David Hutchinson and Jim Leous voted in favor.

Schnatter resigned from the company in July 2018. He retained Papa John's stock but has been selling it off this year and is now estimated to have a 19 percent stake in the company.

Dominoes, meanwhile, was selected as the SCASD pizza vendor last year and district administrators said they would reconsider a Papa John's bid for 2019-20 based on "proposed restorative practices as well as the local franchisee’s commitment to inclusivity," according to a district memo.

Papa John's had the low bid for this year at $6 per pizza, followed by Dominoes at $7 and Pizza Mia at $8. 

In recommending the bid, SCASD Superintendent Bob O'Donnell cited Bajco's equity initiatives and plans at the local level, as well as changes and initiatives instituted by the Papa John's corporation.

"By helping to build relationships in the national community and by Bajco’s efforts to initiate local support, they have exhibited restorative practices," O'Donnell said. "This not only aligns with our beliefs but also meets our initial criteria for reconsideration. For these reasons and with much thought to the sensitivity of the issue in our community, we made the recommendation to the board to approve the contract."

When the bid emerged over the summer, some parents and community members urged the board to reject it, citing Schnatter's ongoing financial stake in the company. Several, including two students, spoke over the course of the hourlong discussion on Monday and at previous meetings, most asking the board to vote against the bid.

"They’re telling you they’re hurt," said parent Lorraine Jones. "Listen to them. Don’t silence them, because a vote for Papa John’s tonight is silencing them... If you vote for Papa John’s tonight, you’re telling them that their voice did not matter. It’s too soon. It’s way too soon. Let’s wait a year."

Nadeem Bajwa, CEO of the Canton, Ohio-based franchise owner Bajco, spoke at the meeting about his company's commitment to equality and building relationships in the community. He said that commitment would continue regardless of whether the contract was awarded.

"I do understand the emotions and anxiety. I am a minority myself," he said. "… It’s not about the school lunch. If we don’t get the school lunch, that’s fine too. We have been part of the community. This community has given us so much, and I’ve always tried to give back to the community. Have we given enough back? I don’t think so… Whether we get school lunch or not, we want to continue to build our relationship."

Board members who voted against the bid said they appreciated those efforts, but said conversations with community members show there is still concern.

"If one child, a child who already feels marginalized in this community or who's looking for ways to support a kid who feels marginalized in this community, if one kid feels invisible or irrelevant or less valued or confused because of pizza, I don’t think we should do it," Bedell said.

"We have heard from many, many families of color that this is something that they believe is not OK with them and it’s because of the racist component," Brandt said. "I believe them."

Some board members also said they had concerns about selling name-brand pizza at all because it is violating the spirit of the district's health and wellness and advertising policies.

Those who voted in favor of the bid said Bajco and Papa John's have engaged in restorative justice practices supported by the district and have actively listened to community members, and that it is a teachable moment about atonement.

"We are fully immersed in restorative practices and they are doing what we claim to be the way we want conflict to be resolved," Fozard said. "I think to then say 'Good job but no' is not a teachable moment for our kids."

Duffy said, however, that the board alone cannot decide whether those restorative measures have been effective and it requires input from community members who are offended.

Concepcion said she supports restorative justice practices, but that, like others, she had several other concerns, including marketing name-brand products to young students in the cafeteria.

“This is not clear cut,” she said. “This is really complex. As I’ve said before, I think thoughtful people can disagree on it.”

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