School board members vote down summer food service program

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The full board of the Meeker School District met Monday, June 8 for a work session and special board meeting that lasted nearly three hours. 

CONSTRUCTION UPDATE

John Usery, NV5 project manager, discussed project updates on current high school construction. The project schedule was accelerated after in-person learning was suspended due to coronavirus. All abatement work has been completed, and a lot of finish work is now taking place in the south classroom wing. They also think the auxiliary gym repairs are complete, “but that thing keeps surprising us,” Usery said. “Everything is tracking well. The bus barn is a little behind,” he continued.

The next topic discussed was use of available contingency funds. The project is tracking on budget, and contingency funds built into the original bid will need to be used in a way that does not violate the ballot language, according to Meeker School District Superintendent Chris Selle.

One possible item is staining of existing brick to match the newer construction. According to the board packet, the cost for this will be $150,000. The work comes with a warranty of 15 years, as opposed to painting, which would likely need redone in two to three years.

There are several other options being considered. A suspended running track in the new gym tops the list of added features ($794,903.00), followed by stained concrete ($6,363), finishing of public wall space with ceramic wainscot ($110,699), extra marker boards for classrooms ($11,720) and new bleachers for the existing gym ($132,793). Total, the list maps out about $5 million in added features, with approximately $1 million coming from the contingency budget (currently sitting at $2.2 million).

The board also looked at the prioritized list of capital improvement projects for possible use of remaining funds. District asphalt projects are the highest priority and will cost $273,000. A bid has been received for the project.

The board did not make any decisions on use of contingency funds and will do so at a later meeting.

ESEA APPLICATION

After calling the board to order, the board accepted the resignation of Briana Williams as the band and choir teacher, and approved personnel hires and transfers. Laura Koenig transferred from a paraprofessional to a kindergarten teacher position, Roberta Kinnamon transferred from her food service worker position to Food Service Director, and Mike Hoke was hired as a route bus driver. The board also approved fall and winter coaching positions.

Next, the board approved a consolidated application for Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Program Funds. “Title 1, Title 2A, Title 3 are all included in there. The vast majority of the title funds that we get go to salaries and benefits or individuals who provide additional instruction in reading and math at the elementary school, or english language learners. A chunk of that goes into professional development,” Selle stated.

Summer Food Service Program

The board then reviewed a potential application for the summer food service program. Board member Dr. Bob Dorsett advocated for the program. According to Dr. Dorsett, about a third of MSD students qualify for free lunch, and almost half of meals provided in the last school year were for free lunch participants. “There’s absolutely no doubt that kids who are not properly nourished during the summer don’t do as well in the fall. They fall further behind than other kids do and they have more difficulty. I would encourage us to participate in this summer meal program.”

The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) is federally-funded and state-administered. Program operators are reimbursed for the meals they serve to low-income children and teens at risk of going hungry, according to the program website.

Dr. Dorsett made a motion for the agenda item. Board member Kevin Amack seconded, stating, “for the sake of a conversation, I think it would be good if we took a vote and put it to bed.”

Other board members then presented their concerns.

Tom Allen: “My first concern is when I was a teacher my children qualified for reduced lunch also. Unless those numbers have changed considerably, I don’t see the red flags. Next concern is we’re looking at a million dollar deficit. After that, special districts are subject to spending their money which fits their mission and I wonder if this does fit the mission, specifically.” He also noted there are two heavily used food banks in town. “If any family is truly in need, there are not one but two outlets for them.”

Dr. Dorsett responded, “in terms of the mission, our mission is to help kids learn. A child who is poorly nourished does not learn in that regard. In terms of the food bank, we’ve all seen the line to the Food Bank of the Rockies in the last three months. It seems to me to indicate there’s a big need in this community for those meals. It seems to me there is a demonstrated need to help our kids.”

Board member David Smith discussed necessary staff required to prepare and deliver the meals, as well as potential issues with food supply. 

Selle responded the district had not seen a significant increase in food supply costs due to the effects of the pandemic yet, but that food orders had fallen off substantially in the last three months, so calculating true costs was difficult. Selle was also concerned about funding. “In a normal circumstance, the funding that’s available for food service programs in a district is rarely enough to cover all of our costs. That could be a little different for the summer food programs. My guess is there would be some cost for the district. I don’t know if it would be a negligible cost or not, but there’s probably some cost.”

According to the SFSP website, “free meals that meet Federal nutrition guidelines are provided to all children at approved SFSP sites in areas with significant concentrations of low-income children.” The school district would sign up as the “sponsor” for the program. “Sponsors receive Federal reimbursement from the state agency to cover the administrative and operating costs of preparing and serving meals to eligible children at one or more meal sites,” the website states. 

Selle continued, “…One of the concerns I have is capacity, both from a financial standpoint and from an employee standpoint. A summer feeding program is more of a program for a philanthropic organization.”

Board member Laurie Simonsen asked who would qualify for the programs, and whether there was already a program through public health or social services. According to Rio Blanco County Human Services Director Barb Bofinger, there is no such program currently in place through the county. 

Dr. Dorsett reiterated he thought the cost would be covered through associated program grants.

The board voted six to one against the motion, with Dr. Dorsett the sole “yes” vote.

COVID-19 SAFETY PRECAUTIONS

The next item on the agenda was COVID-19 Protocols for School Board Meetings. Selle stated, “These are your meetings and you kind of decide how they operate. As a board, you could approve it as presented, not approve at all, amend, it’s really kind of at your discretion as a board.”

The protocols align loosely with what was asked of teachers during their spring meetings with students, and with summer activity requirements for students. The policy would be re-evaluated at each monthly meeting as circumstances change. It set forth several bullet point items, including: board members and meeting attendees with symptoms, or those who have been in proximity to others exhibiting symptoms, would not attend board meetings in person meeting attendees would be screened before entering a board meeting with a written questionnaire listing common symptoms of COVID-19 board members and meeting attendees would observe social distancing, hand washing before and after a meeting, face coverings in school facilities and during the meeting, no more than 10 people in a group, and staggered entry and exit community members would continue to attend meetings virtually only cleaning of high touch surfaces immediately before and after the board meeting with a CDC-approved disinfectant would continue The proposed policy stated, “Board members and meeting attendees who do not adhere to the above guidelines will be asked to leave school district property and attend the meeting virtually via the online link provided.”

After a motion by Dr. Dorsett, deVergie presented concerns about responding to the questionnaire in writing as a potential liability risk, a concern echoed by Smith. Dorsett suggested amending the item about the questionnaire. 

Selle explained the “writing” in the proposed policy referred to writing your name on the form, and would be nebulous as to  whether it was an actual signature or not. According to Selle, it is more restrictive than the information in the county variance.

“You don’t have to do any of this stuff. The way the county variance is written and the way the executive orders are, as a board, you’re not obligated to do any of these things,” Selle said. “There’s been some different opinions and some different feelings. I think it’s probably good for the board to express its will of how these meetings will be conducted and what precautions should be taken. To me, that’s really what this document is about. But they’re your meetings,” Selle said.

Allen and Dorsett voted in favor of an amended motion without the written questionnaire portion. Amack, deVergie, Ridings, Simonsen and Smith voted against official safety protocols. The vote prompted Dorsett and Smith to state they will be resigning from the board, albeit for different reasons. As of press time Wednesday, Selle said he had not received any letters of resignation from board members.

After the board adjourned, members discussed voluntarily posting signage with COVID-19 symptoms, continued use of masks and spacing, leaving the item on the agenda if circumstances change and other COVID-19-related issues at length.

By CAITLIN WALKER | caitlin@ht1885.com