IRSD rejects free lunch for all students in some schools

Board delays new middle school request

Date Published: 
June 27, 2014

The Indian River School Board of Education this week discussed, and ultimately rejected, a free meals program. Funded by the U.S. government, students could get free breakfast and lunch though Community Eligibility Provision, regardless of economic necessity. The CEP aims to feed children in high-poverty areas.

Funding is based on the current percentage of students who qualify for free/reduced meals. Based on the district’s payments and reimbursements, Clifton Toomey Jr., supervisor of nutrition services, determined that the CEP would be economically valuable at schools where about 53 percent of the population already have free/reduced meals: G.W. Carver Education Center, John M. Clayton Elementary, Phillip C. Showell Elementary, Howard T. Ennis School, North Georgetown Elementary, Georgetown Middle/Elementary and Long Neck Elementary.

The remaining schools would still have a right to serve the traditional tiers of free, reduced- and regular-priced meals.

Nearly a dozen areas of the country already participate in CEP, including Maryland, New York and Washington, D.C.

“I think it is an attempt of the USDA to go to a universal feeding system,” Toomey said.

“What does this look like, the everyday lunch line?” asked Board Member Shaun Fink.

“No child pays for lunch or breakfast … even the ones that can,” Toomey said.

“So the government pays the whole bill?” Fink said.

“Yes, they do,” Toomey said.

Student lunches cost $1 in elementary schools and $1.10 in secondary schools, and breakfast costs 60 cents.

The federal government reimburses the district $3.01 per “free” lunch and 36 cents for each “paid” lunch.

“The school actually makes money on a free meal?” Fink asked.

“You get a larger reimbursement on a free child, which helps keep costs low for a paid child,” Toomey said. “We’ve remained solvent all that time … the eight years I’ve been here, plus.”

Financially, Toomey said, the CEP wouldn’t change the district’s bottom line.

Children could continue buying à la carte items, such as snacks or ice cream. That income can be spent as the district pleases.

The school board unanimously agreed to opt out of the program but monitor its use in other districts.

“I don’t think it’s fair for everyone to have free lunch in one school,” said Board Member Nina Lou Bunting, “and the other schools don’t — just because of what school you go to.”

Middle school ready for discussion, not ready for vote

Although they recognize the need, the board opted this week not to submit a Certificate of Necessity (CN) to the Delaware Department of Education, which would be the beginning of the process of building a new middle school.

At the current rate of growth, Steele expects this year’s enrollment of 9,435 students to surpass 10,000 in the next six years.

“We don’t look for a slow down in the next five, six years,” Assistant Superintendent Mark Steele said. “You’ll see there is substantial growth in the northern end of the district,” especially if a new poultry-processing plant comes to Millsboro, he added.

“I don’t think that comes as a surprise,” he said. District enrollment grew by nearly 300 students for the past two years, which is expected again this fall.

His projections, based on the past five years, are high even at half that rate.

Even with 38 new classrooms already coming to the district, the board is leaning toward building a fourth middle school.

However, the board recognized that taxpayers are just now seeing the current work begin, 18 months after the January 2013 referendum passed, allowing for 38 new classrooms in six school buildings.

“I think it would be a hard sell,” said Board Member Leolga Wright, although she recognized the need. She suggested they publicize “the fact that groundbreaking ceremonies have taken place and work is being done. … ‘This is what we’re looking at down the road, and in doing that, we need to prepare ourselves for … a referendum.”

“We’re not asking for anything” by submitting a CN, Chief Financial Officer Patrick Miller said. “This is the formal process to let the other entities know that we’re in need.”

The CN puts the request in the State’s pipeline, so agencies know IRSD’s future intent. Even if it’s OK’d, Delaware must find room in the proposed State budget, and the IRSD would still wait for months before knowing what kind of figure it was asking voters to approve.

If the process fails, IRSD can keep trying.

“Even if this was successful, you’re looking at five to six years before this comes to fruition.”

Moreover, the school size should probably increase in the next CN draft to accommodate the continued growth. By the year 2020, Steele estimated, 950 students will be at Millsboro Middle and 730 at Georgetown Middle.

Millsboro Middle should hold about 800 students with current space, but with nine trailers, it has held up to 1,100 children — something the district has practically sworn never to repeat.

A new school located between Millsboro and Georgetown would probably require redistricting, which can cause contention, said Superintendent Susan Bunting.

Only in recent years has the Delaware Department of Education allowed districts to build schools for projected growth — a practice that began with new Indian River and Sussex Central high school buildings. Those opened about 10 years ago.

CN requests are due in July, then placed in the recommended State budget. School districts must host and pass a public vote, or referendum, by June 30 of the following year to get the go-ahead from district residents.

In other school board news:

• The district’s student dress code was amended to prohibit form-fitting stretch pants, or yoga pants. They cannot be worn alone as pants, but could be worn as nylons or leggings, when worn under clothing that falls no more than 3 inches above the knee.

• When requesting a building permit from Town of Georgetown for North Georgetown Elementary, where ground was recently broken for new classrooms, IRSD officials were surprised to be assessed a permit fee of $137,000. But several board members and IRSD employees met with Georgetown town council members and staff, and the cost was lowered to about $8,800.

Part of that initial fee amount was attributed to the Town’s belief that new classrooms would increase water consumption, but IRSD officials showed that North Georgetown was already using less water than the amount for which it was originally assessed.

“With collaboration of our board members and the close relationships we have … we were successful in mitigating those fees and saved about $125,000,” Miller reported.

The Town of Georgetown has the right to increase costs with future use, but the district got a verbal OK to proceed with construction immediately.

“We have never encountered assessments like we have found in the Town of Georgetown,” Miller admitted.

• The board unanimously voted to begin a district-wide overhaul of phone systems. Long Neck Elementary needs a new system immediately, but recognizing that many schools will need standard upgrades to allow for growth and safety anyway, the board decided to approve everything at once, although the new systems will be installed over the next several years.

“We believe, to maximize cost savings, we have to do the whole district,” said D. Patches Hill, technology systems manager. “The question is if you want to do it. … If we only do one building, we’re only going to save in one building.”

The next regular school board meeting is set for July 28 at 7 p.m. at Indian River High School. There is a special organizational meeting July 1 at 8 a.m. at Millsboro Middle School.