With Free School Meals for All, Districts Face Budget Headache | New

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The numbers appeared as soon as Mark MacLean looked at them. It was fall 2020 and the Merrimack Valley School District had collected its annual number of students eligible for a free and discounted lunch. In just one school year, counts in all six towns in the district had dropped.

The average number of students who requested discounted lunches in Andover fell from 102 to 43. In Boscawen, the count fell from 163 to 91. In Penacook, the number fell from 225 to 128.

MacLean, the district superintendent, knew the numbers weren’t correct. The gap is the result of a federal family assistance program during the pandemic. But solving it was going to take some effort.

Since the start of the pandemic, school districts and families in New Hampshire have benefited from exemptions offered by the United States Department of Agriculture for free universal lunches in schools. Temporary waivers mean that schools are fully reimbursed for the lunches they provide, allowing them to offer the food without charging families.

But the free meal program, which the federal ministry extended until June 2022, has an unintended consequence. With all families now receiving free meals, there is no longer a direct incentive for low-income families to continue requesting the free and discounted meal program, according to district officials.

The result: The number of students across the state of New Hampshire who qualify for a free and discounted lunch has increased from the 2019-2020 school year to the 2020-2021 school year, according to data from the state. This affected the state’s ability to collect data on families representing up to 185% of the federal poverty line, or $ 49,025 for a family of four.

The counts are important. Beyond providing schools with the funding needed to offer free and discounted lunches in the first place, the numbers also determine how much additional money a district receives from the state as part of the adequacy formula.

State lawmakers have already mitigated the financial threat. In the two-year budget passed and signed earlier this year, the legislature voted for a temporary fix, directing the Education Department to use attendance counts from previous years to determine the additional help it should. provide students with free and discounted lunch. . This kept the districts whole while waiting to see what the USDA decided to do about the waivers in the next school years.

Yet even with a legislative fix, school districts are trying every tool they can to convince eligible parents to continue applying to the programs and close the data gap.

“Districts have used everything but bribes, from pizzas to dances, to raffles, who knows, to try and get all the accurate data they can for free and discounted apps,” Jerry Frew said, associate executive director. the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, in testimony to lawmakers Thursday.

One district even had participating families pull an iPad, Frew said.

Most neighborhoods have had to resort to less flashy methods. In Franklin, the district sent the nominations home to every parent – regardless of income level – in an attempt to equalize the process.

In Newport, the district raised the issue during open houses at schools, stressing to parents the importance of filling out applications so the district can continue to receive federal assistance.

“We tried to point out in school board meetings and things like that, which is on TV, that it’s really important to the district because Newport is not a wealthy district, and we are getting raises. substantial funding for this free and reduced lunch program, ”said Newport Superintendent Brendan Minnihan.

And in the Merrimack Valley School District, MacLean tried a more direct approach. Using the numbers showing the massive drops in requests for free and reduced lunch, MacLean translated that into dollars, showing how much the school district could have lost had the state not stepped in. In Boscawen alone, the potential hit was $ 130,897. Across the district, the number was around $ 485,000.

In a document sent to parents titled “It’s More Than A Meal Request,” MacLean took this projected funding loss and converted it into potential property tax increases. It caught the attention of parents.

“It definitely forced some people to fill out and fill out the application,” MacLean said, but not everyone, he noted. The figures are still down compared to previous years.

Even without the unusual funding situation of recent years, the free and reduced meal program can pose challenges, depending on the district. Families and children often fear the stigma of applying for the program, or forget to do so. Districts can cover the cost of lunches while families return their requests – “we’re going to feed the students no matter what,” MacLean said – but with most lunch programs already operating at a loss, that help cannot. go further.

And while this year’s legislative fix has kept districts from addressing these shortcomings, lawmakers say building on numbers from previous years is not an ideal long-term solution.

The riddle has prompted some state officials to return to the drawing board. At a joint meeting last week, members of the House Education and House Finance committees teamed up to determine whether the state should continue to rely on data on free and discounted meals. as a measure to determine which schools need help – or to find other measures entirely.

“Who knows what the USDA is going to do about the program and the ongoing waivers?” Said Representative David Luneau, a Democrat from Hopkinton. “Maybe all students will continue to have free lunch waivers, and the data (free and discounted lunches) could evaporate completely. So I think now is the time to start looking at the availability and relevance of other available data points. “

No solution is perfect, however, say lawmakers. In a state with no income tax, there are few comprehensive ways to determine income levels in school districts at a granular level, noted Mark Manganiello, program support coordinator at the Department of Education, in remarks to the committee.

The state has not historically used census data, which is prone to response errors, to determine district-by-district adequacy data.

And while data from federal temporary assistance programs for needy families and supplemental nutritional assistance are currently used by the Department of Education to supplement district free and reduced meal counts and fill gaps, these programs require also that families make a request, which makes them imperfect. measurements.

The legislative committee will continue to meet to find a better solution before the USDA ends the universal lunch program next year, President Karen Umberger said last week. For now, the municipalities are trying to stick to proven methods: convincing parents one by one that pursuing the application is the right thing to do.

Franklin started the 2020-2021 school year with 250 fewer children enrolled for a free and reduced lunch than the year before, Superintendent Daniel LeGallo said. After sending the applications to all parents, the district “collected about 100 more.”

“So, you know, we were happy with it,” LeGallo said.


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