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By Dan Rudy 

School board weighs food program options, hires new principal

 


Wrangell School Board held a special session and workshop Tuesday evening to discuss the future of its school lunch program. At its May 19 regular meeting, the board voted in favor of canceling the school district's contract with NANA Management Services, which this year provided food and preparatory staff.

“We are exploring different options,” said board president Susan Eagle. The workshop was not a formal one, with people allowed to offer ideas freely. Additionally, feedback had been submitted to the superintendent's office and was included in the discussion.

The move to end the contract was first prompted by uncertainties with the state budget, as the Legislature considers education cuts. At the school board's April 27 meeting, to offset losses from state funding, a cut of all but $12,000 to the meal program was being considered. The return of federal Secure Rural Schools monies and news of lesser cuts in the Legislature's draft budget effectively saved the program, meaning it could instead be reduced by only $8,000 to $105,000.

Despite this, a projected three-percent increase in NANA's contract for the 2015-16 academic year prompted the school district to decline continuing the service. An alternative plan was put forward by the administration that would withdraw Wrangell from the National School Lunch Program, so it could administer its own meal program.

In this scenario, food items would be kept simple, generally sticking to sandwiches, soups, fruits and vegetables. Part-time staff would be taken on to prepare and serve breakfast and lunch. One staff member would work two hours each day to prepare meals and two people would serve meals during a one-hour shift.

In all, the school estimated it would spend around $58,000 during the year for the program, with $20,000 of that labor costs.

Current cafeteria staff and some parents were skeptical of the proposal. Head cook Kim Wickman has said the two-hour preparation time was unrealistic and pointed out transport and clean-up would be a variable to consider.

At Tuesday's meeting, a sample lunch of turkey and tuna sandwiches, soup, fruit and carrots was brought in for attendees to try. School business administrator Pam Roope said the meal had only taken an hour and a half to prepare, including shopping for ingredients.

She explained students would be free to choose servings as they saw fit, including half- and quarter-sandwiches. Previously, wasted items from the set menus were reported as a problem in the schools' cafeterias.

Because meals would be kept simpler, cold items could be transported in a wider range of vehicles, and the school's convection oven could be used to heat items on site as well.

“There are lots of options that can be done with that,” Eagle suggested.

Technical details would still need to be worked through, such as whether to serve meals in plastic bags, paper sacks or on washable trays.

“You have to balance that against the cost of serving it on a tray and washing that,” Eagle said.

NANA-contracted cook Beth Comstock wanted to know what contingency plan the schools had in case the plan did not work out midway through the academic year. Last year, an attempt by Wrangell Public Schools to administer the meal program itself resulted in costs climbing well over budget. If actual preparation and serving times took as long as she expected they would, Comstock felt a similar situation would arise again during next year's program.

“Even if you double the time, it's half of what it is now,” board member Rinda Howell said of labor costs.

“We have a lot of room, as far as our budget goes,” Eagle added. She explained that the $105,000 is still budgeted for the program, though she added that the school district ought not spend all of that, as less money is expected to come in from the state in coming years.

One of the ideas offered by audience member Drew Larrabee, the school vocational instructor, attracted enthusiasm. As specialists in their field, kitchen staff could apply for state-level Type M certification, which would allow them to use the cafeteria facilities to instruct a vocational course in culinary education. For course credit, students could then participate in assisting in the program, doing food prep and learning the business aspect of running a kitchen.

There were 16 students enrolled in the school's culinary program last year, and Larrabee felt sure that number would rise if students felt they were being given something constructive to learn. Other ideas were circulated, such as using facilities to implement a working business project or to pursue college accredited coursework.

The board did not take action on a meal plan at the session. Board members will instead consider it at their next meeting in June.

The board voted to extend non-tenured contracts to five of its teachers for the coming year in a special session held after the workshop. That action had been put on hold at the May 19 meeting.

School board members also elected to offer Kendall Benson the position as the new secondary schools principal. One of four candidates for the opening, a committee of faculty, school administration and community members unanimously recommended him. With three decades of educational experience, Benson was previously the principal at Cedar Middle School in Iron County, Utah.

 

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