School lunch chief vows to leave program 'in good shape'

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WESTBROOK — After 35 years in school nutrition, including the last seven in Westbrook, Director of School Nutrition Barbara Nichols will be retiring at the end of the school year, but not before figuring out a plan to reduce some of the debt students owe on their school lunch accounts.

Nichols, who came to Westbrook in 2011 after more than a dozen years in the Augusta school nutrition program, said she decided to step down this year to spend more time with her family, including her husband Dan, who recently retired.

Nichols said her “intention is to have this program in good shape for whoever takes over.”

“It’s a wonderful community and I want to see it succeed, but I am ready for a new adventure,” she said. Superintendent Peter Lancia said the search for Nichols’ replacement is underway.

Last month, the school department received an anonymous $10,000 donation to wipe out some of the more than $17,000 students owe for the current school year. Lancia said in the last month the school nutrition program also has received close to $3,400 in donations, including $2,500 from a New York City attorney. School Committee Chairman Jim Violette said the attorney wanted to donate after seeing a story about Westbrook’s nutrition debt on the national news.

Nichols said she has pulled the data of students across the district who owe more than $40 and has sent a list to building principals, who have been asked to work with school support staff to “identify a child on there that they think the money should go to, for whatever reason.” 

Finance Committee Chairman Veronica Bates supports that approach, she said, because staff knows better than the school committee the struggles individuals families may be going through.

The idea, Nichols said, is to first wipe out the $2,180 debt owned by students in the free lunch program and the $1,300 in the reduced lunch program before looking into the debt owed by other students. Nichols said since school nutrition debt follows students from one grade to the next, the debt owed by students in the free lunch program was accumulated before they qualified for that program.

“If we can help a family to reduce that burden, that’s the idea,” she said at a June 5 finance committee meeting at the district’s administrative office.

Nichols said it may behoove the district to just pay off the free and reduced lunch debt and use the rest of the donations in future years.

“I don’t think there is any reason you have to use all of that money this year,” Nichols said. “Money can sit in that account and be used if there is a need in the future.”

Violette wasn’t convinced that was the right approach and opted to first connect with donors to confirm their intent.

“It’s an amazing gift we received. I really think a discussion or phone call should be made (to the donor). They may say ‘it is up to you,’ and then I would agree let’s take care of those with hardships first.”

Lancia said to his knowledge none of the donors specified just how they wanted their donations applied within the school nutrition program.

While the donations have provided welcome relief, school leaders may opt to change the policy so they don’t find themselves in the same position next year.

“I have not proposed any changes to the policy yet,” Nichols said. “I think it is important to have guidance from the finance committee before doing that.”

Something that could be stricken from the nutrition program’s administrative procedure, or at least amended, is a section that outlines how balances of $50 and $100 are handled at the elementary school level.

Current procedures state once an elementary school student reaches an unpaid balance of $50 or more, a meeting is required between the parents or guardians, the nutrition director and the building principal “to discuss the situation and develop a re-payment plan. Once that unpaid balance reaches $100, a meeting is required between the parents or guardians, the nutrition director and the operations director. Although those procedures are on the books, Nichols said they are difficult to implement.

“We started doing that for a few years, but it was so difficult to manage,” she told committee members. “That is something we may want to address moving forward.”

Violette said one thing that he wants to address is the middle school lunch debt. Middle school students are notified when their prepaid lunch balance falls belong $2 and are asked to remind their parents or guardians to replenish the account, but like elementary students they are allowed to charge meals if they don’t have money in their accounts.  At the high school, students can only charge two meals and once that limit is reached, “no further charging is allowed.” Violette said he would recommend allowing middle school students to only be able to charge a certain amount of meals as well.

One thing that will be changing for the 2018-19 school year is the price of school lunch. Per the state’s regulation in school lunch price equity, the price of school lunch will increase from $2.50 per meal to $2.55 per meal. The 5-cent increase will not impact free or reduced lunch.

The school committee is expected to discuss the school nutrition debt and potential policy changes at its next meeting at  7 p.m. Wednesday, June 13.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com or on Twitter @mkelleynews.

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