PARKERSBURG - The Wood County Board of Education Tuesday voted against participation in a federal program that would have offered free meals this fall to students at 17 Wood County public schools.
The board voted 0-4 against a motion to participate in the federal Community Eligibility Option, which subsidizes meals for schools in high-poverty areas.
Board President Tad Wilson was absent for Tuesday's meeting and did not vote. Board member Lawrence Hasbargen attended and voted via conference call.
Photo by Jeff Baughan
Wood County Schools Food Service Director Beverly Blough on Tuesday presented details of a federal program that would have provided free meals this fall to students at 17 area public schools.
West Virginia was one of a handful of states selected to pilot the program this year. Unlike the current free and reduced-price meal programs, CEO provides benefits for an entire school rather than having individual families apply for benefits.
Board members Tuesday said that was part of why they voted no.
Board member Jim Fox said he was "philosophically opposed" to a program that would provide benefits for students from relatively wealthy families. The CEO would provide free breakfast and lunch for all students at a school, including those who did not qualify for low-income benefits.
"I don't think the intent of this program was to pay for meals for kids from families that are well-to-do," he said.
"What am I supposed to say to a family in need that has a student at a school that isn't participating?"
Beverly Blough, director of food service for Wood County Schools, said the program is to help "the working poor," those families who are employed but make just above the cut-off line for federal food programs.
"We are looking at what areas of our community have the greatest need," Blough said.
Officials planned to institute the program at Blennerhassett, Emerson, Fairplains, Neale, Jefferson, Franklin, Mineral Wells, Martin, Lubeck, Criss, McKinley, Kanawha, Madison, Worthington and Waverly elementary schools and at VanDevender and Edison middle schools. If approved, the program would have begun this fall and run for four years.
But selection of participating schools was another issue for the school board.
"I don't feel comfortable with the blanket approach and basically ignoring Williamstown," said board member John Marlow, adding the goal of the board was to make decisions that benefited all students, not just a few. "With this approach I don't think we could meet that goal."
To have all 27 Wood County public schools participate, the school system would have to pay about $1 million annually to the program.
"We can't do that," said Superintendent Pat Law.
Blough and Law said by narrowing the number down, the school system could break even on the program, with savings coming from a reduction of unpaid meal bills and collections expenses. The federal program would have paid for roughly 86 percent of the total cost of the meals provided.
Board member Tim Yeater said he did not believe the program could be done without cost to the school system.
"I understand this works out on paper," he said. "In reality, I'm not so sure."
Blough offered to reduce the scope of the program to only include the district's 10 Title I schools, which already received some federal funds due to having a high percentage of students participating in free and reduced-price meal programs, but the board still voted no.
Marlow and other board members also expressed annoyance the topic was brought for both discussion and a vote at the same meeting. Law and Blough explained the federal announcement of the program and deadline left relatively little time to gather information and apply.
Even so, Marlow pressed the issue.
"I, as a board member, struggle with something being presented and asking for a vote that same night," he said after the vote. "If there is a way we could avoid that in the future, I would appreciate it."
Blough said Wednesday the school system may have an opportunity to apply for the program after the 2013-14 school year, but added she doubted it would fund as many schools as the percentage of reimbursement likely will lower as the program expands to other parts of the nation. Blough also said the board's current attitude made it seem unlikely the program would be approved a year from now.
"Given some of their concerns now, I'm not sure what would necessarily change their opinion," she said.
Blough said the board's decision to pass on the program this fall was disheartening.
"I was disappointed we could not offer this for the hundreds of families that are struggling financially," she said. "I respect that the board is concerned about treating everyone equally, but it is a disappointment that we cant help those who are working hard to provide for their families and the children."