School district's $3 million pizza predicament

April 23, 2009 7:28:42 PM PDT
With California schools in financial crisis, you would think school administrators would be extra careful spending what little money they have. The ABC7 I-Team found a big purchase in San Jose that raises a lot of questions about where they have put their money, and priorities, when it comes to your kids.

MOST POPULAR: Video, stories and more
SIGN-UP: Get breaking news sent to you

It sounds like a good idea. Instead of paying outside vendors for lunch room pizza, San Jose school officials decided to go into the pizza-making business themselves. But with no one on staff with any experience and no real plan in mind, they quickly realized they were in way over their heads. Unfortunately, they had already spent a lot of tax money on one heck of a machine.

It's called the Pizzamatic -- an automated, industrial, all-in-one, pizza-making workhorse.

"It has a dough stamper, followed by a sauce machine," said student nutrition consultant John Sixt.

It has a mammoth stainless-steel production line, like those the big pizza companies use. No other school district in the country has one.

"If any of the mozzarella cheeses falls through the conveyor, it's picked up by the conveyor again," said Sixt.

It can produce up to 1,000 pizzas an hour.

"We can vary the thickness of the pepperoni," said Sixt.

Well, it could make 1,000 pizzas an hour.

Noyes: "How many pizzas have you actually made altogether with this new pizza system?"

Sixt: "Since I've been here running it, we probably have run maybe around 2,000 pizzas total."

That's about 2,000 pizzas in two years.

"So we brought the machine thinking we could probably produce 800 pizzas per day, and that just didn't come into fruition for a lot of different reasons -- part of it was the machine itself, part of it was inoperable as we brought it into the district," said San Jose Unified spokesperson Karen Fuqua.

So, how did this happen? Back in 2003, the San Jose Unified School District started brainstorming on what it would take to create a low-cost healthy pizza kids would eat.

They decided they would make pizzas themselves, on a grand scale; they were going into the pizza business.

They spent $720,000 to buy the Pizzamatic and another $2.2 million to build a home for it in their central kitchen. It finally went online in 2007, but they couldn't make the Pizzamatic work. They ended up hiring a consulting company that brought in their own manager.

Noyes: "And as you walked in the door -- I'm wondering, for the first time -- and you see that machine, what went through your mind?"

"I guess the first thing that went through my mind was 'Gee, what a big machine. A lot of stainless steel."

Sixt realized the Pizzamatic needed a full-time technician to keep it running and to keep all those electric eyes lined up. He also needed a crew to clean the machine each day. So he abandoned most of the Pizzamatic -- all those gadgets -- except for the oven and a couple conveyor belts.

Pizza production is now down to just one day a week. Kitchen workers assemble the pizzas by hand, starting with frozen crusts. The Pizzamatic sits polished and empty. It's too complicated and temperamental for the staff to manage. They wait at the end of the assembly line to feed pizzas into the oven, one by one.

"It would have been nice to be able to use the whole thing all the time, but it's just more machine I think than really, what we need right now for our nutritional program," said Sixt.

The district also never figured out how to get the pizzas to schools all over the city before they got cold. They didn't have enough trucks and drivers.

With all these problems, the district's pizza bill keeps growing. Over the past five years, they've been ordering out -- $1.4 million paid to Dominos and other restaurants for more pizza.

"Not everything works out exactly the way we want it to be," said San Jose School Superintendent Don Iglesias, who concedes there have been problems. " Some of it has to do with technology, and anticipating we had some great plans that may come into fruition probably in better financial times than what we're in now."

He insists the Pizzamatic is still destined for greatness. In the future, he hopes to increase staff and get the Pizzamatic working the way it should, so the district can even make money on their pizza.

"There's 33 school districts in our county, and ideally and maybe down the road we'll be able to do this, but we were also hopeful that we would be able to produce pizzas not only for our own districts but neighboring districts as well. And that machine has the capacity to do that," said Iglesias.

"Sounds like the Pizzamatic isn't very matic," said parent Lisa Stapleton.

Parents we talked to were skeptical.

"There's just so many other areas where our schools could use the money, especially in the classrooms where the kids are actually learning," said parent Velda Garcia Jones,

"It just makes me heart sick," said Stapleton. "It just seems like from a business perspective or even a good governance perspective, it just seems like it was a very bad investment."

"It's discouraging because there's never enough money to pay for the kind of things that you want to do," said school food specialist Dana Woldow.

Woldow has spent years analyzing school budgets. She says she has never seen a project mishandled like San Jose's Pizzamatic.

"I think it's a good idea before you spend a large chunk of money on a piece of infrastructure like that, I think it's a good idea to first do a feasability study to make sure that this is something that you can make adequate use of," said Woldow.

The district says there is no money in the near future to get the Pizzamatic up to speed. For now, it will continue to sputter along, and with a lot of help, turn out about a hundred pizzas each Friday for elementary school pizza parties -- one very expensive pizza at a time.

"We've made good sound decisions over the years, not everything we do comes out exactly the way we would like it, but we stand by our decisions," said Iglesias.

The superintendent has some tough decisions to make. The district has to cut $29 million from the budget by the end of next year. Add up the cost of the Pizzamatic, the kitchen renovation, and all that Dominos pizza, and you have a $4.2 million bill. For that kind of money, they could have bought 28 Olympic-sized pools or more than 200 baseball fields.

Send us your comments or tips by e-mail here or by calling 1-888-40-ITEAM.

       Today's latest headlines | ABC7 News on your phone
   Follow Dan Noyes on Twitter | Fan Dan Noyes on Facebook
Follow ABC7 on Twitter | Fan ABC7 on Facebook | Get our widget


Load Comments