EAST MONTPELIER — A recent spike in meal prices across the six-school Washington Central Unified Union School District has members of its finance committee considering what would amount to a taxpayer-financed subsidy.

Responding to some grumbling that accompanied a 25-cent increase in student meal prices that went into effect when the district’s schools opened in August, committee members have asked Business Administrator Lori Bibeau to prepare a proposal to reduce those prices next year.

None were willing to commit to the concept during their Thursday meeting, but committee members agreed they’d like to explore the possibility of reducing meal prices in the context of looming budget deliberations.

School Director Flor Diaz-Smith flagged the issue, which has occasionally been mentioned at board meetings based on feedback involving the recent meal price hike.

In August the cost of student lunches at elementary schools in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester, as well as U-32 Middle and High School, increased from $3.75 to $4. Five of those six schools saw a similar increase in the price of student breakfasts, which ticked up from $2.75 to $3. Rumney Memorial School in Middlesex was the lone exception. The cost of student breakfasts there had already increased to $3 and remained unchanged.

Committee members were told those prices don’t come close to covering the cost of providing those meals and the six previously autonomous schools collectively subsidized their separate food service programs to the tune of nearly $180,000.

Roughly $100,000 of that total can be traced to U-32 where school officials had historically budgeted to underwrite the food service program by $31,000, but boosted that total by $30,000 while cutting a position this year.

Budget support from the five elementary schools ranged from a high of $25,000 in Berlin to a low of about $3,350 at Doty Memorial School in Worcester.

Diaz-Smith suggested increasing the combined subsidy in the context of a budget for the now-merged district could provide meaningful relief to some families, who don’t quite qualify for free-and-reduced lunch and have multiple children in the school system. She said she was particularly concerned about families with three or four children in school.

Under the new prices those families are now shouldering a daily expense of $12 to $14 for cafeteria prepared lunches and an extra $9 to $12 a day if they opt for breakfasts as well.

Diaz-Smith said it was at least worth looking at the impact of an increased local subsidy that would allow the board to reduce meal prices next year.

In a district that served just over 109,000 lunches at its six schools last year, Bibeau said a $1 reduction would require raising $109,000 in additional taxes. That said, she noted cutting prices below the per-meal amount the district receives for students who do qualify for free meals isn’t possible. Currently the reimbursement rate is $3.48 for lunches and $1.84 for breakfast.

Bibeau said she would present the committee with a proposal to reduce prices in 25-cent increments so they could weigh the value of making that change in the context of the overall budget.

Committee members who are bracing for a robust discussion about equity in the context of upcoming budget deliberations were told a group that has long-provided a mentoring program that currently serves 38 students in the Washington Central and Montpelier-Roxbury districts is asking for stepped up support from both.

Girls/Boyz First Mentoring has asked for $10,000 from each of the two neighboring district to underwrite its annual efforts.

In other business the committee agreed to recommend no increase in the rates for the districts self-funded dental insurance program or the Health Reimbursement and Flex Spending accounts offered to employees. It also agreed to ask clerks in all five Washington Central towns to submit a request for reimbursement for poll workers based on special elections that were held in the run-up to a state-ordered merger earlier this year.

The district has received two requests and while one exceeds what committee members are comfortable paying for the other could provide a template for resolving concern over the extra election-related expense.

With a special election scheduled in November, settling on a reimbursement formula will resolve the old issue and provide clarity with respect to future elections.

david.delcore @timesargus.com

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