Lunch is served

Now that lunch is free for all New York City students: How many will eat it?

PHOTO: Denver Post

When schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced the day before school started last week that New York City would no longer charge any student for school lunch, principals across the city celebrated the change.

Now, to their relief, they wouldn’t have to pester families who often wound up owing them for unpaid meals or worry that some students were skipping out on lunch because they were ashamed about qualifying for free meals. But, to make the most of the program, they would have to spread the word to families and encourage students to take advantage of it — so some immediately began drafting letters to families and preparing to make lunchroom announcements.

But even as schools rushed to carry out the new policy, which made an additional 200,000 students eligible for free lunch, city officials didn’t expect a sudden spike in students eating school lunches. And even advocates say it will require sustained outreach to convince middle-class and low-income students alike to take the free meals.

“This is a policy that for decades had separated children by income,” said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates. “It’s going to take some time to undo that.”

Even though most principals welcomed the new policy, some said it was unlikely to create a big change at schools where most students already received free lunch.

Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters Principal Brandon Cardet-Hernandez said many of his students reacted with indifference when they were told about the new policy. He suspects that’s because — as in many city schools where most of the students come from low-income families — the vast majority of students were already eligible for subsidized meals.

“It’s great,” he said, “but the reality is a huge portion of our kids are already getting free lunch.”

For years, advocates have pushed Mayor Bill de Blasio to make lunch free for all students. Until now, families have had to earn at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, or $45,510 for a family of four, to qualify for subsidized lunch. While 75 percent of the city’s students qualified under that old standard, some families who earned more still couldn’t easily afford the $1.75 lunch — and students often felt stigmatized for claiming a free meal.

The city had been moving incrementally toward free lunch, making it universal at standalone middle schools in 2014, which resulted in a 6 percent increase in those students eating school lunch, officials said. Now that lunch is free citywide, an education department spokesman projected the new lunch policy would result in 29,000 additional students getting lunch each day — a 3.4 percent increase.

That relatively modest bump is far lower than what some advocates have predicted. Community Food Advocates had anticipated an additional 120,000 lunches per day, and the organization’s executive director, Liz Accles, stressed the city should work to aggressively to make sure parents know it’s free and convince students to participate.

“The policy change is most important, but what’s the messaging to students and families?” Accles said. “I think there should be a bigger jump than 3 percent if there’s a real effort to publicize.”

City officials noted Fariña sent a letter home announcing the change, notices have appeared on school websites, and some principals have been sending reminders of their own.

At Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens, principal Damon McCord said he appreciated the new policy even though his school has not struggled with any stigma associated with free lunch.

A relatively even mix of students at MELS qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, but because students pay for lunch using a barcode on the back of their student ID cards (a common practice at city schools) it’s difficult for students to tell which of their classmates cannot afford lunch.

“That system had gone a long way to help take some of the anxiety out of the lunch lines,” McCord said.

Still, McCord and other principals expressed some concern that the new program could make it more difficult to qualify for federal Title I funding that flows to schools with higher shares of students who qualify for subsidized lunch.

McCord sent an email to families Monday stressing that even though lunch will be free for all students, families should still fill out the old income forms to help the school collect additional federal funding.

Last year, the proportion of families who qualified was about five percentage points short of the 60 percent threshold required for schools to receive extra Title I money, he said. McCord said he is unsure if the free lunch program will make it more difficult to persuade parents to submit the form.

But, in a sign of how federal funding can provide a major boost to school budgets, he noted two to three school staffers would spend the next month making sure families filled out the forms. (City officials said moving to universal free lunch in middle schools created few paperwork problems.)

“There’s a lot that a school can do with that money,” McCord said. “It’s a feast-or-famine system that’s in dire need of reform.”

Across the city at the Academy of Arts and Letters, a K-8 school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn that wasn’t included in the middle school free lunch program, principal John O’Reilly said he’s thrilled about the new program.

Because students are allowed to roam between lunch and recess, there is less scrutiny of who is eating school lunches and who isn’t, even though about a third of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, O’Reilly said.

As the city has worked to make school lunches more nutritious by adding salad bars and using more locally-sourced ingredients, it appears to be having an added benefit of attracting a wider range of students to the lunch line, lessening the stigma attached to school meals.

“When the lunch is better, it’s harder to know who’s qualified for free lunch and who isn’t,” O’Reilly said. “They want really good food.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.