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AISD lunches lead to plea for information

Thursday, May 21, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

A consent-agenda item to increase school lunch prices held larger implications Monday as the Austin Independent School District strained against projected budget shortfalls in the upcoming year.

At their regular meeting, members of the AISD board of trustees agreed to postpone an increase in all student meal prices until they could examine all budget-related items closely.

The price increase caught some board members by surprise and prompted criticism of the district’s financial decision-making process.

“To me, this is coming forward piecemeal,” said District 6 Board Member Paul Saldaña. “I’d like to have all of the (budget) items come forward at once so we can vote them up or down. Because at this point … I don’t really know what impact this is having on the overall budget.”

Monday’s consent agenda asked trustees to approve additional revenue for several items, such as meals, future special programs and construction contracts.

In the case of the meal request, AISD staff asked to increase all prices for school-provided breakfasts and lunches by 25 cents. The change would bring an elementary school student’s lunch from $2.35 to $2.60.

Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley explained that it is federally mandated that AISD raise its lunch prices by 25 cents this year for all students not classified as economically disadvantaged.

The United States Department of Agriculture determined AISD’s price increase by using a formula called the Paid Lunch Equity adjustment. “The calculator basically makes sure that the local (district) matches or is meeting its fair share,” Conley said. “The feds sort of pick up free and reduced lunch costs, and a portion of that is calculated to ensure equity – that the paying students absorb the additional costs of meal plates.”

However, Conley said there is an alternative to raising prices. Similar to AISD’s proposal, some school districts pass on the increased food expenses to students, but others choose to subsidize the costs themselves.

Given AISD’s budget shortfall, Conley said, that option would add $1.2 million to an already “underwater” budget deficit.

“Well, this is the first time I’m hearing of this,” Saldaña said. “We’ve had several budget retreats, several budget conversations, and nobody’s ever mentioned that to me specifically.”

Saldaña added that the backup information was confusing and misleading. The backup documents provided to board members indicate that the department’s $1.2 million shortfall is due not just to food expenses but to other factors as well, such as potential increases in labor costs and increases in health care premiums.

“This is my point exactly,” Saldaña said. “I’m a new trustee, and at the end of the day, my constituents are holding me accountable to make decisions. But I can’t make decisions if I don’t have the full picture.”

Board President Gina Hinojosa, after seeking clarification from staff about funding, pointed out that AISD could subsidize the federal program with nonfederal dollars for the first time – such as with the district’s general funds – or the district could opt out of the National School Lunch Program completely.

“I think other districts have gone to outsourcing their lunches,” Hinojosa said, noting as an example Del Valley ISD’s program, which makes money. “There are trade-offs. There are jobs at stake and all sorts of trade-offs that aren’t easy.”

AISD’s budget deficit is expected to be in the red by $30 million to $32 million next year.

Trustees will have item-by-item discussions of cost-cutting and revenue-generating possibilities at their June 1 meeting and June 15 workshop.

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