PARKERSBURG - Wood County Schools administrators say the number of students receiving free or reduced-price meals has reached a record high, even as enrollment in the school system has dropped.
During Tuesday's meeting of the Wood County Board of Education, Superintendent Pat Law presented start-of-year statistics for the school system, including enrollment numbers and the percentage of students eligible for subsidized meal programs.
The federal free and reduced-price meal programs are available to qualifying low-income families. This school year 55.69 percent of the district's 13,368 students are receiving meals through the federal program. The percentage translates to more than 7,400 students qualifying for federal aide, the vast majority for free meals.
Wood County Board of Education members Lawrence Hasbargen, left, and Tad Wilson, right, review student data at Tuesday’s board meeting. Officials said the number of Wood County Schools students receiving free and reduced-price meals is at an all-time high for the school system, even as total enrollment has dropped. (Photo by Michael Erb)
"That is the highest percentage we've ever had in Wood County," Law said.
The numbers are increasing at nearly every school, he said.
"Some of our schools that we would consider to be in affluent areas are now at more than 30 percent," Law said. "One-third of their students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals."
Board member Jim Fox said the numbers illustrates economic hardship in the community and the need for Wood County Schools to offer programs to help those students, such as after-school tutoring.
"It's even more important that we reach out to these families and bring these programs to them," he said.
However, in June the Wood County Board of Education voted 0-4 against participation in a federal pilot program that would have given free meals to all students at 17 area schools. Board member Tad Wilson did not attend the meeting and did not vote.
At the time of the vote, board members expressed concern the program did not benefit students in all 27 schools. Officials had planned to institute the program at 15 area elementary schools and two middle schools.
Board members, including Fox, also took issue with the idea of all children at a school getting free meals, including those from relatively well-to-do families. The board expressed annoyance the program was brought to their attention the same night they were asked to approve it, a quick turnaround district officials said was due to tight federal application deadlines.
State officials have hailed the program as an important step forward in feeding children and promoting the state's student nutrition programs. Wood County Schools is one of 19 school systems in West Virginia that opted not to participate in that program.
Fox could not immediately be reached Wednesday for additional comments.
Law said Tuesday officials have seen the increasing need in recent years even as total enrollment has declined. This month's enrollment is about 100 students fewer than in September 2011.
"The decrease in the number of students will affect our funding from the state," Law said, "and that will affect personnel."
Wilson said he hopes the recent announcement of new jobs coming to Public Debt will mean new families moving to the area and will help bring back some student enrollment.