BARRE — Plans to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students at Barre City Elementary and Middle School starting in the fall have hit a snag because of one of the requirements for participating in the federally subsidized “community eligibility” program.
The school board learned of the glitch on a night when members also agreed to rethink a plan to make a radical scheduling change next fall and were told the district was boasting a sizable surplus heading into the fourth quarter of this fiscal year.
In something of a good-news-bad-news update, George Mackey, of food service contractor Fitz Vogt & Associates, told the board that the city’s pre-K-through-8 school more than qualifies for a U.S. Department of Agriculture program to provide free meals to all students in eligible schools.
According to Mackey, a recently completed audit revealed that 60 percent of students at the Barre school qualify for free and reduced-price lunches — well over the 40 percent threshold for participating in the USDA-funded program.
“That was the easy part,” Mackey said, noting that based on those numbers the USDA would pick up 95 percent of the cost of breakfasts and lunches.
The problem, according to Mackey, who runs the food service programs at BCEMS and Spaulding High School, is that based on his conversations with state officials who administer lunch programs, the district would be required to swiftly rebid the school’s food service contract to join the program when school starts in the fall.
Board members were told Monday night that Fitz Vogt is in the fourth year of a five-year contract and would likely be reluctant to risk losing the fifth year by agreeing to reopen the agreement. Also, no change could be made without the Spaulding board’s consent.
“I’m not sure what the next step is,” Mackey said.
Contacted for clarification Wednesday, Laurie Colgan, the state’s director of child nutrition programs, said she has determined that the shift to a universal food service program that would rely almost exclusively on a federal subsidy was a “material change” to the food service contract and would require putting it out to bid.
Colgan said she has sought confirmation of her interpretation from USDA officials but hadn’t yet heard back.
And in fact, according to Colgan, there is no such thing as a multiyear food service contract for public schools in Vermont.
Colgan said school boards must solicit bids at least once every five years and then sign a one-year contract with the option of up to four annual renewals.
That process has played out in Barre, where Fitz Vogt was chosen four years ago and the contract can be renewed one more time.
Acting on the recommendation of Superintendent John Bacon, the board Monday agreed to send a letter to the state expressing interest in participating in the program and a desire to avoid having to rebid the contract.
“It would be difficult to go out to bid at this time,” Bacon said.
If the school isn’t able to participate in the free-meals program, students who don’t already qualify for free or reduced-price lunches likely will have to pay more, Mackey also told board members.
The cost to those students will almost certainly go to $2.50, from the current $2.25, to close a gap between the fully paid rate and the per-meal rate the school is reimbursed for eligible students.
Meanwhile, board members agreed to reconsider their decision two weeks ago to accelerate plans to change next year’s schedule so that middle school students get a later start than their younger counterparts.
Gillian Fuqua, a language arts teacher at the school, urged to board to rethink the decision it made in haste last month in an effort to ensure a problem-free transition if the change is actually made.
With summer vacation weeks away, Fuqua worried that there is too little time to work out some of the issues associated with the change and even less time to communicate with parents.
Busing, child care, lunch schedules and use of shared spaces in the school were all issues Fuqua said deserved careful consideration to avoid surprises.
“Things will be forgotten,” she said, suggesting the board take all of next year to prepare for and communicate a transition.
Board members agreed to reconsider their earlier vote and refer the matter back to their curriculum committee.
On the financial front, the night before voters rejected their $12.6 million budget request for the second time, board members were told things were looking good when the district entered the final leg of the current fiscal year.
Although expenses are running $53,112 over budget, Business Manager Lynne Carpenter said revenues are up $626,635 — a difference of $573,523.
Bacon said that projected surplus was enough to wipe out a deficit the district carried into this fiscal year and still leave a fund balance of $335,672.
Those numbers are subject to change between now and June 30.
Chairman Lucas Herring said the projected fund balance is good news but noted that until it is audited the money can’t be used as a source of revenue in the yet-to-be-approved budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
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