KSA flushing dollars down the drain

Student thinks the KSA should ask before committing your money to big projects

By Colin Fraser

One thing caught my eye during the big Sodexo controversy of the last few weeks, something that slipped under the radar, that no one seems to have really commented on. A single line in Emery Warner’s contentious polemic:

“The Grassroots café is a yummy food provider that does not seek to gain profits over people. They hire students and purchase locally. They were snubbed out of the contract to occupy the space that Sodexo is currently in.”

Wait, what? They were snubbed out of what contract? They didn’t previously occupy the space that Sodexo is currently in; that was Chartwells. What can that mean?

Well it turns out that it means that the Kwantlen Student Association (KSA), which already runs one of the cafeteria spaces at the Surrey campus, tried to put in a bid to run the other Surrey campus cafeteria. I don’t recall the Kwantlen Student Association asking the students, whose interests they purport to represent, and whose money funds their entire operation, if we wanted them to run another cafeteria on campus. It would seem that they just assumed that they ought to spend our student fees to expand their food service business.

Every semester, you pay around $45 to fund the KSA. Collectively those $45 payments add up to over one million dollars per year. It is the KSA’s responsibility to use that money to enhance the student experience at Kwantlen. With your money, they hold student events, lobby on your behalf to the government, give away free stuff like condoms and feminine hygiene products, and operate the Grassroots café.

That means that when the KSA decided to put in a bid to run the other cafeteria, it was your money that they were putting on the line. Running a cafeteria is risky business: they could easily lose a lot of your money. The question naturally arises as to whether the KSA should risk your money operating another cafeteria on campus, rather than letting a private company risk its own money operating a cafeteria on campus.

To answer that question, a good place to start is to look at how they run their existing cafeteria business, the Grassroots café. If you ask anyone on the KSA payroll whether the Grassroots café makes any money for the students, you’ll hear something like this: “the Grassroots café turns a small profit, which is then reinvested back into student services”. That sounds fantastic—but it’s not true at all. I’m reasonably sure that if the Grassroots cafe did turn a profit, the KSA would reinvest it into student services, but that never ever happens. Here’s a quick rundown of the Grassroots café’s losses since 2003:

Year Losses
2009 $24,426
2008 $52,606
2007 $47,771
2006 $149,275
2005 $32,681
2004 $15,731
2003 $32,217
Total $354,707 or $50,672 per year.

The Grassroots café consistently loses a lot of money, and never makes any, as you can see. And they aren’t doing that on purpose—a note in the 2008 budget document reads: “The Finance Committee strongly suggests that the General Manager, the Director of Finance, the Director of Operations and the Commercial Services Manager work together to ensure that the café break-even in 2008”. They tried to break even in 2008, and ended up losing $52,606.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Grassroots café. I think it’s great that students work there, the food is pretty good, they serve beer, the staff are friendly — it’s a nice place to be. But it’s also important that the students understand that, thanks to the KSA’s incompetent management, the Grassroots café is the place where student fees, in large numbers, go to die.  Which brings me to the KSA’s attempted bid to expand its cafeteria business. A successful bid by the KSA to run the space that Sodexo now occupies would have been a commitment to lose more of your money. They have demonstrated that they don’t know how to run a café without losing an average of over $50,000 per year—there is no reason to expect that another cafeteria would be any different.

And yet all of that is beside the point. Maybe I am in the minority when I say that I don’t want my student fees sunk into a venture that loses tens or hundreds of thousands of student dollars per year. Maybe the student body, as a whole, wants their money thrown in the garbage instead of used for fun events or scholarships or reduced parking fees or a whole host of other possibilities. The point is this: the KSA didn’t ask the students. They should have engaged the student body openly and honestly. They should have told us that they were thinking of putting in a bid for the cafeteria, and that it could lose a lot of money. They should have told us why they thought it was a good idea to run another cafeteria, why in their opinion it would be good for students. If they had a plan for how they would run the cafeteria, they should have made it public on their website. Hell, they should have had a referendum—running another cafeteria is a huge risk whose merit is debatable, and the students should get to decide if that is a risk worth taking.

In my opinion, we got lucky. We were lucky that a private company swooped in and stopped this cafeteria from turning into a black hole for student fees. In an alternate universe somewhere, the KSA won the bid and funds are already being allocated away from cool stuff and into supporting a losing business venture. But my opinion isn’t important. What’s important is the collective opinion of the student body. The KSA’s mission statement reads:

“The mission of the Kwantlen Student Association (KSA) is to support its members during their time of study by ensuring adequate provision for their welfare, activities, political, and social needs. Through its democratic procedures, the KSA represents and reflects the concerns and priorities of its membership to the Polytechnic University and beyond, and strives to uphold the rights of each of its members.”

“Its membership” is you, and in trying to put in this bid without consulting you, the KSA overstepped its authority and failed to uphold its mandate to represent and reflect your concerns and priorities.

My request to the KSA is simple: just ask next time, okay?

You can read more from Colin at his blog

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