Lunch in the levy?
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:09 PM
"Hot lunches will be a hot issue Tuesday night. The Oak Harbor School Board appears split over whether to include a hot lunch program in a maintenance and operations levy request on the March ballot or spin off the lunch program into a separate ballot issue. On one side, board members have heard from a local levy support group and the district's superintendent that starting a lunch program is one of the highest priorities among parents, and that breaking it out from the main levy is like dooming it to failure. On the other hand, some board members say that many people they talk to have strong objections to a lunch program and will vote down any levy proposal where it's included.The issue of whether public schools should be in the business of providing meals to kids touched off a flurry of arguments last spring when the district proposed a $1.47 per $1,000 property tax levy which, in addition to a lunch program, included money for more teachers, longer class days and technology upgrades.That levy just barely received a majority of voter support but failed to pass because it came nowhere close to the 60 percent supermajority required. It was chalked up as yet another loss for a district that has a history of defeated levies stretching back more than 30 years.Prior to the spring vote, opponents keyed in on the lunch proposal, saying it was the parents responsibility, not taxpayers, to make sure kids are fed. They added that with such a large military-based student body, the Oak Harbor district should use federal dollars to pay for such a program.Supporters countered by saying that the lunch program portion of the local levy, which amounts to about 7 cents per $1,000, had nothing to do with feeding kids. Federal and state funds, when combined with lunch fees to students, would be used to put food on the table and keep the program running. The levy money, they said, was needed only to pay for extra custodial and supervisory staff needed to get the program started and maintained. The fact is, money to fund hot lunch programs throughout the state is already taken out of local taxes. In other words, Oak Harbor taxpayers are currently paying to help feed kids in Seattle, Spokane, South Whidbey and Coupeville for instance, but not students in Oak Harbor.The failure of last spring's levy left Oak Harbor as the only large school district in the state which does not participate in the National School Lunch Program. Of all the state's students who do not have access to a hot lunch through their schools, more than 90 percent are in the Oak Harbor district.Last month, the Oak Harbor School Board agreed that the needs of the district still make it necessary to ask voters to approve a new levy in March. That levy, they projected, would need to be only 77 cents per $1,000 as opposed to the $1.47 per $1,000 proposed last May. That's because money for summer school programs has been dropped out of the levy request and because voters recently approved state ballot Initiative 728 which will send more than a million extra state dollars into the Oak Harbor district next year.But even though the request has been cut by almost half, some board members say it is still in danger of failure because of the hot lunch issue.You do lose a conservative voter ... as soon as you put that on the ballot, said board member Jim Slowik at a recent board meeting. And they're not going to listen to you. Seven cents makes a big difference to some people.Slowik and fellow board members Susan Waller and Kathy Jones said they favored running the hot lunch program as a separate ballot issue in March.We're not taking hot lunch off the ballot. It's still there, Waller told levy supporters.Slowik agreed.You can still go out and get voters to vote for both, he said.The trio said that after talking with constituents, they have come to believe that the remaining parts of the maintenance and operations levy, such as added classroom assistants and improved technology, stand a better chance of passage if they are detached from the controversial lunch issue.If we can only get Plan A through then at least we get something, said Slowik.Meanwhile, board members John Dyer and Vicki Harring said they think the lunch program should remain part of the overall package because it shares the same importance.Members of the Citizens for Better Schools Committee, a local levy support group, said they were disappointed in what they perceive as a change of heart on the board.I think you may get the levy to pass and the lunch and stadium to fail, the committee's Kathy Chalfant told the board. You're just splitting the yeses up.The district is already planning to run a separate bond issue on the March ballot. The bond will pay for design and construction of a new sports facility to replace the district's old Memorial Stadium.District superintendent Rick Schulte agrees with the committee that by splitting off hot lunches, the board would be signalling a lack of confidence and commitment in the program.I think it will be viewed as a vote against the lunch program, he said in his briefing to the board. In my 14 years in Oak Harbor, lack of a school hot lunch program is the most frequent complaint I receive, mostly from families new to the community. I believe the school board should take the lead in promoting a school hot lunch program because it is good for the kids we serve. Good nutrition is essential to good learning, and school lunch has been accepted everywhere throughout the United States as a key responsibility of school boards and school districts.Schulte said numerous meetings, studies and surveys have confirmed that hot lunches are one of the highest priorities among parents in the district. But Slowik pointed out that despite their vocal support of a lunch program, Oak Harbor parents often do not turn out at the polls.Your parents aren't your voters, he said.-------------------Levy talkThe Oak Harbor School District Board of Directors will meet Tuesday, Nov. 28, at 6:30 p.m. in the Oak Harbor Elementary School North gym. Agenda items include the March levy proposal and a cost estimate for a new stadium. "