Education

Mar 22, 2013 9:26 PM by Andy Koen

District could raise lunch fees to pay for "free" breakfasts

COLORADO SPRINGS - As the bell rang for the start of school Friday morning at Queen Palmer Elementary, students found a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, a carton of milk, string cheese and an apple laid out on their desks. The school began serving breakfast "after the bell" two years ago as part of a pilot program. Principal Julie Fahey says the change her students was immediately noticeable.

"The first thing that was really clear to us was that we had less kids coming to the office with complaints of I have a headache, I have a stomachache."

What's more, she says attendance is higher and so are student test scores.

"I can't say it's just breakfast, but I know that breakfast is truly a contributing factor to this," Fahey added.

Lawmakers have taken note.

"When you have all the best learning tools and outlines and all those things in place and the kids are hungry, you know, they're not paying attention," said State Representative Tony Exum, (D) Colorado Springs.

He co-sponsored House Bill 1006 which would expand the concept to an estimated 386 schools across the state. The legislation requires schools where at least 70 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch to serve breakfast in class.

The problem is money. Glenn Gustafson, Chief Financial Officer for D11, says the federal reimbursement isn't enough to pay for the extra food and cafeteria workers.

"Those kids that don't qualify for free or reduced lunch are basically getting a free breakfast that we are not getting reimbursed for, so we have to absorb that cost," Gustafson explained.

He says if the number of students on free and reduced lunch was raised to 75 or 80 percent, the program could pay for itself. At Queen Palmer, 92 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch.

As the bill is written today, the district stands to lose about $60,000 a year. That kind of expense is hard to absorb after years of cuts in state funding for schools.

"We've already cut $35 million from our budget, we've already increased class size twice, we've already closed schools, we've already frozen pay," Gustafson explained. "We just don't really have many options to take this unfunded mandate from the legislature."

To make up the difference, he says the school board may have to raise school lunch prices. Rep. Exum says D11 and the other districts should apply for grants to help recover the loss.

"We have an amendment to the bill that's going to start with the 80 percent threshold for the first year and then will go back to the 70 percent threshold," Exum added.

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