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KCSD considering changes to offering alternative meals

May also have to raise prices to meet state requirements

Posted: June 4, 2018 4:24 p.m.
Updated: June 5, 2018 1:00 a.m.
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The Kershaw County School District (KCSD) may be changing the way it handles providing lunches for students who either can’t afford to pay or simply don’t pay for the midday meals.

KCSD Coordinator for Nutrition & School Food Services Misha Lawyer said she convened a meeting of stakeholders in mid-April consisting of herself, School Food Services Specialist Amy Ellis, Camden High School Principal Dan Matthews, Lugoff Elementary School Principal Melissa Lloyd, Bethune Elementary School Kindergarten teacher and School Improvement Council (SIC) member Julie Pigg, and parents/SIC members Marsha Stone, David L’Elie, Amy Proveaux and Gregg Riley.

Lawyer made her report to the Kershaw County Board of School Trustees’ Facilities/Finance Committee during its May 29 meeting.

During the mid-April group meeting, Lawyer explained to the rest of that team that Food Services generates its own money based on reimbursements it receives from federal meal programs. Money for payroll (100 employees) and expanses are not taken from the district’s general fund because that would be taking money away from education. In addition, Food Services across the country are mandated to always have three months of operating expenses on hand, which in the district’s case is about $1.5 million, but must not make a profit. Any excess funds have to be put back into the program for equipment upgrades and better menus.

In that regard, Lawyer said even at Pine Tree Hill and Doby’s Mill elementary schools -- the newest in the county -- the kitchen equipment is already approaching their shelf life of 20 years.

With all that in mind, the group working with Lawyer turned its attention to negative balances: the money owed by students for unpaid meals they have eaten.

“We get a barrage of phone calls every year about (how) we’re penalizing the child,” Lawyer said. “Parents in the community want the alternative meal to go away. With that going away, they want to lift the $12 charge limit.”

Lawyer explained that in 2006, at Food Services’ request, the board implemented the $12 limit -- a practice whereby students cannot charge more than $12 for regular meals before being moved over to receiving an alternative meal. Alternative lunches currently consist of a turkey and cheese sandwich, fruit and milk.

Lawyer said Food Services can be reimbursed for alternative meals; but all the charges the division is incurring come from “full-pay” students or from those who have not filled out applications to qualify for free or reduced meals.

“So, the committee met … and they decided that we would like to lift the $12, not serve an alternative meal -- which means every child that comes through gets a regular meal -- there’s no distinguishing between who has money and who doesn’t, who’s got an application filled out or who doesn’t,” Lawyer said.

This may cause, however, the negative balances to “get out of control very quickly,” she said.

“If they go from kindergarten through 12th Grade, or just through 5th Grade, that’s going to be $1,800 that they’re going to owe Food Services if they don’t pay their bill,” Lawyer warned. “The problem with that being thosebalances carry forward, so where is it all going to end up? At the high schools, with the high schools trying to collect.”

One of the things Lawyer said she wanted to discuss with the board before the group she created reconvenes is how to stop the balances from carrying over at each school level. She also said with the $12 cap still in place, Food Service was still sitting at -$11,000 as of May 29.

“But if you look at all the meals I can’t collect any money for after we hit that $12 … we’ve lost, since 2011, $456,000,” she said, equal to  what it would take to outfit an entire brand new school cafeteria.

Answering a question from Facilities/Finance Chair Matt Irick, Lawyer said most parents ignore notices saying they only owe $12 and that it might be more effective if they saw owed balances of, for example, $50 or $60.

Outgoing KCSD Superintendent Dr. Frank Morgan reminded the committee that the “real battleground” was over alternative meals. Lawyer said she actually agrees with parents’ contentions that alternative meals unnecessarily “punish” the child.

“It does have a lot of negative connotations with it,” she said.

Lawyer said losses differed based on when Food Services offered alternative lunches. During the 2014/15 school year, the district only offered alternative lunches in May, thus leading to a huge loss in revenue from the rest of the school year. During 2015/16, the district began offering alternative lunches in December, leading to a smaller loss of revenue. Then, during 2016/17, the district offered alternative lunches at the beginning of the school year, leading to an even lower loss of revenue.

Facilities/Finance Committee member Trustee Derrick Proctor asked whether a parent could be prevented from registering their child for the following school year if negative balances hadn’t been paid.

“No, we can’t withhold education over this,” Morgan said. “This is an interesting discussion. You can tell a student who has a balance he can’t walk (during their graduation ceremony). It doesn’t mean he can’t get a diploma, they just can’t go through the ceremony. Interestingly enough, with some folks, that’s the final day they ‘get it.’”

Lawyer noted that Matthews said he will collect 90 percent of the money owed by Camden High School students when they and their families find out they won’t be able to walk across the stage during graduation.

“We’re talking about a $12 balance for meals at the time, but it could be hundreds of dollars if they haven’t paid periodically,” she said.

For younger students, the group looking at this issue talked about keeping kids out of field days or other activities until all fees -- not just Food Services -- are paid. Lawyer said this was done at Stover Middle School, and resulted in collecting about $800 out of $1,000 owed to Food Services alone, along with money owed for other fees.

“In the high schools, they were looking at, maybe, withholding being able to participate in prom, because they already do that as a disciplinary action,” Lawyer added; some group members even suggested getting the IRS or S.C. Department of Revenue involved in withholding taxes. “It’s putting everybody in a bind, and (trying to find) the right solution to not get it to where they’re in high school and owing hundreds of dollars.”

The group did come up with a set of initial suggestions of how to alleviate negative balances while not stigmatizing the district’s youngest students with having to eat a different meal from their classmates. Lawyer said it is at the elementary school level that fellow students will “poke fun” at those who are eating alternative meals, as opposed to at the middle or high school levels.

Lawyer will come back at a subsequent board meeting to bring her committee’s concrete recommendations.

Meanwhile, she also noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent out a rule in 2011 that all Food Services across the country have to start approaching the national average for school lunch in terms of pricing.

She said the national average for school lunches is $3.55 while Kershaw County charges $1.75 to elementary school students and $2.50 to middle and high school students. Based on a USDA tool, Food Services can calculate how much the price per meal should be increased each year, at a 10-cent minimum. However, Lawyer said she has not used it since 2011 because she’s had an excess in operating balances and has been able to obtain waivers from the USDA.

“Year 2020 is supposed to be the cutoff year when we’re supposed to be at the national average,” she explained. “Now, they’re not going to make school districts jump from $1 to $3.55 in one year, but they’re going to need to see that we’re making the move towards the $3.55, which will probably be higher by the year 2020.”

According to Lawyer and KCSD Chief Financial Officer Donnie Wilson, the district has not increased meal prices in 16 years. She suggested making a single 50-cent increase now and then wait for the state department of education to tell them they have to keep increasing.

Wilson had another idea, and explained by going back to 2011.

“When this happened, I said, ‘Look, we’re already profitable, we already have a healthy fund balance,” Wilson said, adding that even before then, the district considered a price increase during the Great Recession that began in 2008. “‘Why in the world would we do that, right now; parents are already struggling.’ So, we got the waiver and got it again, again, again, again, again, and again. My personal view about this and professional view about this match up, and -- I don’t know how far we can go with this … do everything possible to keep them forcing us to do this. If we were losing money hand over fist, I’d say let’s do it.

“My guess is … in two years, in 2020, when it is mandatory, there will be different heads of departments looking at it, all the way up to the federal level, and there will be some people that you can talk to and negotiate with. I would be careful about increasing prices too much right now. That’s my 2 cents.”

Lawyer said parents would want to know as far ahead as possible of any price increases and suggested any increases strictly go toward upcoming kitchen upgrades and installations across the county.

The full school board may take up a change in policy at a future meeting.

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