School lunch prices to go up; Board worries increase will tax families

Published 9:57 am Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Parents and students are going to pay 10 cents more for lunches next school year, and Austin Public School Board members worry incremental increases will tax some families.

The school board voted during a Monday work session, with Kathy Green voting “no,” to increase school lunches by 10 cents to $2.30 for elementary schools, $2.40 for grades fifth through eighth and $2.50 for the high school.

Though this doesn’t affect free and reduced lunch students, school board members and district leaders voiced concerns about incremental increases being a burden on families just outside free and reduced lunch levels.

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“There’s probably kids that are going hungry because they can’t afford to be paying for the lunch, even though they don’t fall within the guidelines of free and reduce,” Green said.

However, district leaders like Director of Finance and Operations Mark Stotts say the district doesn’t have much of a choice. The district is under federal mandates to bring the lunch prices up to a certain level, but the district is aiming to do it gradually.

“Our lunch prices are actually still lower than most of our counterparts in the Big Nine,” Stotts said. “We’re working to catch up, but we do it incrementally so we don’t hit families all at once.”

While Green argued the district’s food budgets are healthy, she said the mandates to increase prices to the federal level are making the district “sock it to the people” living just above free or reduced lunch levels — many of those people still don’t have a lot of disposable income.

“This does not make sense in the practical world,” Green said. “We’re increasing prices on an item and a fund balance that we’ve got the money there. It’s not that we need the money within our district for this thing to work, it’s because of a federal mandate.”

Board member Mary Jane Kestner agreed many families falling just out of the free and reduced levels need to work around paying for school lunches.

“That’s a big chunk of money they have to … plan,” she said.

Superintendent David Krenz agreed it can be a challenge for families right on the line.

“The trouble is there’s that hard line, and if you’re above it doesn’t mean that it’s any easier for you. It’s just then you have to pay that full price,” Krenz said.

But Krenz said if they didn’t approve the increase, the district could risk losing the federal dollars for free and reduced lunches.

Some districts have gone on their own and broken from the federal requirements, but Krenz noted those district see a small number of free and reduced lunch students.

But with about 57 percent of Austin students qualifying for free and reduced lunches, that makes it unlikely — if not impossible — for Austin to follow such a path.