Bundles of federal stimulus dollars are earmarked to make school cafeteria food more nutritious and school buildings more energy-efficient. Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp. stands to benefit from that windfall and from new efforts by schools to economize - if it can convince supervisors that a for-profit enterprise will act in students' best interest.
Aramark manages food service, facilities, or both for about 500 school districts across the country. (But not Philadelphia's.) Dennis Maple runs the company's K-12 arm, which serves 2.8 million meals a day to schoolchildren and cares for 153 million square feet of space in schools.
Green cred: Even before the economic crisis hit, fuel prices were hitting school districts hard, and Aramark began to position itself as a problem-solver. Its expertise ranges from fine-tuning HVAC systems for efficiency to motivating teachers and students to be mindful of classroom light switches.
"We really were a little bit ahead of the curve in beginning to talk to school districts about the importance of these things," Maple said. Now, with tighter state budgets and new efficiency incentives from the feds, supervisors are keener to listen, he said.
Council Rock's big save: Exhibit A for the company's energy-management work is Bucks County's Council Rock School District, which in three years has saved more than $4.7 million in utility costs and cut consumption more than 40 percent.
Aramark crafted individual energy standards for each of the district's 16 school buildings, repaired HVAC equipment, taught schools to run their systems more efficiently, and campaigned to motivate students, teachers, and staff members to help the conservation effort.
The Environmental Protection Agency has recognized the program for excellence - "It's being seen as a national model," Maple said - although there is always room for improvement. A recent issue of Council Rock's energy newsletter noted that lights were left on in half of one school's classrooms when teachers and students filed out for a tree-planting ceremony.
Green-vegetable cred: In the food-service realm, Maple said there was about $100 million in stimulus money available for equipment such as salad bars, fruit-and-vegetable bars, and breakfast carts, mostly to boost nutrition and school-meal participation in low-income school districts.
Aramark had already been encouraging clients to promote those goals, particularly at breakfast. "In most districts, there's a great deal of encouragement to have breakfast before you take the state-mandated tests," Maple noted, "so if it works during that week, you know that it works during the other weeks, as well.
"I think, again, we were a little bit on the forefront," he said. "And the way that we talk about it is now being reinforced with the resources from the government's federal-stimulus package."
Free enterprise vs. educators: While the national K-12 market is wide open for growth - Maple said 80 percent of America's school districts still ran their own cafeterias and maybe 90 percent maintained their own buildings and grounds - educators can be wary of outside providers.
"There is a direct conflict, sometimes, in the minds of educators about the mission of education and the nobleness of that, as opposed to the capitalistic approach of businesses trying to make money," he said.
No superintendent left behind: One of Aramark's efforts to bridge the gap is a business curriculum for school superintendents. Pioneered in Rhode Island, where the firm has a statewide contract, it brings in company executives to teach topics such as change management, employee retention, public relations, and even school district branding.
"Our view is that the business side of education looks very much like the business side of most companies," Maple said. The goal is to present Aramark more as a partner than as a service vendor trying to close sales.
Brand Dennis: Maple has been named one of the 75 most powerful African Americans in business by Black Enterprise magazine. Before Aramark, he worked at Kraft Foods Inc., PepsiCo Inc., Molson Coors Brewing Co., and the Quaker Oats Co. - where he helped establish Gatorade as a monster brand.
Nationally and locally, he circulates among movers and shakers in education policy. He sits on the board of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University, the Philadelphia branch of Outward Bound (founded by Michael Nutter, among others), and Philadelphia Academies, the business-school partnership run by Lisa Nutter.
Brand X specs: Maple uses reading glasses for close work, but in the interest of marital harmony, he will not wear them for photographs. His wife, Donna, is not a fan of the drugstore cheapies he favors.
"I tend to lose them, so I buy them in the most convenient places," said Maple, who lives in Malvern and has two children. "They're not necessarily the most stylish glasses.
"She thinks it's time for me to upgrade."