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By Dan Rudy 

Huge portion cut out of school lunch program

 


Extra chairs were needed at Monday's Wrangell School Board meeting as parents and staff settled in to what would be a lengthy proceeding.

On the minds of many was the proposed cut of $113,000 from the school lunch budget, effectively ending the program. The cut represented the largest of several cuts to school expenditures planned for the coming year, totaling $209,167 or a 3.5 percent reduction.

The cuts were in response to the loss of one-time funding from the state and reductions to per-pupil funding proposed by the House and Senate majorities in their budget draft. The extent of the cuts in the state budget remained uncertain as the school board meeting began.

“Basically what this represents is the worst-case scenario,” explained Wrangell school superintendent Patrick Mayer. Adding to the evening's urgency, the school district needed to have its budget approved and submitted to the city by May 1.

“We have to make this budget tonight,” said Susan Eagle, chairing the board.

School cook Beth Comstock was among those opposed to cutting the school meal program, arguing it hurt students and disproportionately affect some with limited means.

“What happens to those kids who don't eat?” she asked.

Kim Wickman, head cook at Wrangell Public Schools, agreed the program should continue but recommended changing the way meals are offered in an effort to reduce cafeteria waste. She reported an average of 50 secondary and 60 to 65 elementary school students eat lunch every day and that with set-menu meals the kitchens are required to maintain ingredients for them all.

Her recommendation was to switch to an a la carte service, allowing students to choose which dishes they wanted to eat. This would save money for the schools by giving staff the flexibility to determine how much of what foods they stock, allowing staff to cater more to students' actual tastes.

“We don't have to force them to choose things,” she said.

During the course of the protracted meeting, it was learned the Legislature in Juneau returned a significant portion of funding to education in its budget draft, with a $16 million cut proposed instead of the initial $47.5 million.

School business manager Pam Roope estimated that would translate to $105,000 returned to Wrangell schools. The board amended its budget accordingly, adding the expected money to the meal program, which would instead see only an $8,000 cut.

Cuts elsewhere will include around $49,000 in cuts to salaries and payroll benefits and a $45,000 reduction in supplies.

During the public hearing portion, attendees scrutinized the budget for alternatives. For example, rather than allotting $70,000 for a new technology director position, one resident suggested the schools instead expand a current part-time position already handling much of the school system's tech needs. Another recommendation was relegating the position of superintendent to a part-time or shared position.

During the meeting, parents and community members raised other issues with school administration as the board examined its new strategic plan draft.

On the topic of safety, James Nelson was critical of the schools' current crisis plan, which outlines lockdown procedures in the event of an emergency.

Last spring Nelson led school staff and faculty in emergency response training following the lines of “ALICE” —or Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. The new approach was implemented by previous school principal Monty Buness before his retirement but never formally adopted as district policy.

Nelson felt the current lockdown-based procedure, adopted in August, would not be useful in an active-shooter situation, pointing out its top-down approach and clunky response matrix.

“I believe the current plan puts our students in danger,” he said. In addition to mirroring recommendations put forward by federal agencies, Nelson said faculty participating in the ALICE training seemed supportive of the program. At least a dozen faculty members in attendance at Monday's meeting indicated their agreement. Nelson was also that frustrated no progress had been made since he brought the topic up again in August.

“I want this to happen immediately,” he concluded.

Janelle Privet also expressed concern about the board's attitude toward open meeting rules, such as restricting the window for public input during meetings. Several parents also took exception to the board's policy of centralizing input by having feedback distributed to its members through the superintendent, a policy revised earlier this school year.

“We want to make sure all the board has the same information,” Eagle responded. She explained concerns that board members might shun members of the public on the street was a misconception.

After the meeting, Eagle said the given suggestions will be responded to in writing on an individual basis. As to reconfiguring school meals, she said: “That will be a discussion that will probably occur between the administration and the NANA Corporation.”

NANA Development Corporation currently has a contract with Wrangell schools to provide its cafeteria meals.

 

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