State College

Why a pizza contract is causing controversy (again) at State College Area School District 

The State College Area School District plans to award a bid to Papa John's to provide delivered pizza for lunch, but some parents are against that.
The State College Area School District plans to award a bid to Papa John's to provide delivered pizza for lunch, but some parents are against that. Image from Papa John's Pizza on Facebook

With the State College Area School District board of directors poised to consider a contract for Papa John’s delivered pizza for elementary and middle school students, district parents and community members are lodging an effort to stop that.

An email from a SCASD parent sent out to Standing Up for Racial Justice members urged them to tell the school district to vote against approving a contract for delivered Papa John’s pizza.

“Papa John’s founder uses the N-word to describe people of color,” SCASD parent and SURJ member Lorraine Jones wrote in the email. “In response, many Allies have been protesting the sales of Papa Johns. Locally, the school district wants to continue to support the sales of Papa John’s pizza as a fundraiser in the district despite the fact of racist language has been used by the former owner.”

Jones said several SCASD parents and community members from different racial backgrounds and nationalities are trying to get the school board to reject the bid for Papa John’s.

“From the beginning, our district has taken the Papa John’s contract very seriously because we understand the sensitivity of his comments within our black community,” SCASD Superintendent Bob O’Donnell said in a statement. “While nothing is final with the current proposed contract, we are committed to equity and inclusivity.”

In 2018, Papa John’s founder and ex-CEO John Schnatter came under fire for using the N-word in a conference call to a marketing firm contracted to help him in the wake of his comments criticizing national anthem protests by NFL players in 2017. Schnatter stepped down as CEO after his NFL comments and resigned as chairman of the board six months later in July 2018.

Earlier this year, he sold 3.8 million shares in the company and reduced his stake from 31% to 19%, remaining the company’s largest shareholder.

Citing Schnatter’s financial ties to the company and his financial support of people whom she referred to as “white supremacist,” Jones said the school district should cut all ties with Papa John’s and look for other local options besides delivered pizza from food chains and franchises. She pointed out that the cost of delivered pizza is a small fraction of SCASD’s $163.9 million annual operating budget.

“Children are very impressionable. We must model ... antibigotry behavior for young children,” Jones said. “We must show children that black lives and moral integrity matter over financial gain.”

“Either we have to go with someone that has integrity, or we just don’t have pizza,” she said.

The school district pulled its bid award for delivered pizza from a local Papa John’s franchise last September after Superintendent Bob O’Donnell and Business Manager Randy Brown said Schnatter’s racist remarks went against the district’s Climate and Inclusive Excellence policy. The school board approved a contract with a local Domino’s franchise instead.

SCASD food service administrators have recommended the board awards a bid to Papa John’s to provide delivered pizza for the 2019-20 school year, at $6 a pizza estimated to cost $54,000 annually.

Pizza is generally served monthly to elementary schools and weekly to middle schools, said SCASD Finance and Operations Officer Randy Brown. The district found no measurable difference in the number of students purchasing Papa John’s pizza versus Domino’s pizza, he said.

Of three vendors administration solicited quotes from, Papa John’s had the lowest price per pizza, administrators said in a memo. Domino’s quoted $7 per pizza and locally based Pizza Mia quoted $8 per pizza.

According to a memo sent to the board, the district administrators reached out to Papa John’s to learn more about its “commitment to diversity and equity nationally and in the State College community.”

O’Donnell said the district has engaged with many different people concerned about the Papa John’s contract over the past year.

Jones said the efforts to engage the local Papa John’s were not adequate in changing the negative impact of Papa John’s nationally. She and others met with O’Donnell to talk about rejecting the bid, and she said it “was a very productive conversation.”

In the memo, district administrators said Papa John’s has taken “significant steps” nationally to increase support of, representation of and involvement in diverse communities. On a local level, the district said, Papa John’s said it wants to partner with SCASD and community groups to work toward “equity and diversity” in State College and its surrounding communities.

“Our goal has been to increase our understanding of this complex matter so that we can make the most informed recommendation possible,” O’Donnell said. “Our hope is to reach a conclusion that considers what is best for our students and our entire community, with a specific focus on our black community.”

O’Donnell said the district is “prioritizing opening the new school year and will revisit this matter in the near future.” The matter, which had been tabled at the Aug. 5 meeting, is not on the agenda for Monday’s meeting.

Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.