At an Aug. 4 special meeting, the board heard a recommendation from district staff that they should approve a $.50 increase across the board in the price for a hot lunch. The increase would bump elementary school lunches from $3 to $3.50 per meal, and middle and high schoolers would jump from $3.50 to $4.
The initial suggestion of the increase comes from Chartwells, the food service provider for the school district. Chartwells was hired last year to replace Sodexho, ostensibly to provide better and more nutritious meals to district students.
However at the end of the first year with Chartwells, the district found itself with a $300,000 deficit in the food service fund. Figures from Chartwells indicate that if the meal prices stay as is, the district will see a $236,686 shortfall for the 2009-10 school year.
School Superintendent Steve Enoch said increasing prices for school lunches is not what he wants to do, but the district can't afford another year of losing money on the program.
"We're still trying to get a good picture of what's going on," he said. "We think it's necessary with the economy as it is and the economic hit that school districts are taking."
Enoch pointed to projections from Chartwells indicating that if the increase is approved, they could bring the program to "break-even" this year.
"I don't think our food service programs should be money makers," Enoch stated. "We like to see them at break even."
School board members were somewhat divided on the issue, with member Greg Marvel taking a firm stance against raising prices. "Although I understand the deficit situation our food services is in, I'm opposed to it because I felt the district made an error when they hired Chartwells," he said.
Marvel stated that he felt the fiscal projections made by Chartwells when they bid for the district's contract were off by as much as $500,000. Chartwells, he said, contracted to do the same job as Sodexho.
"We never had these kinds of deficits with Sodexho," he offered. "The bottom line is we were given a bill of goods as a board."
Board member Paul Gardner offered a counterpoint, saying that the reason Sodexho was replaced was that the district had received complaints about the quality and nutritional value of the food being served. "If Chartwells improved the taste and nutrition of the food and it cost more, I can work with that."
Board member Ken Mintz pointed out that the increase would leave the School District as one of the most expensive lunch programs in the area.
"I will reluctantly vote for the increase. I will wait and see if the parents walk away from the program," he said.
If the increase is approved, SRVUSD's lunch prices will be the fourth highest in the area, behind Moraga, Palo Alto and Orinda.
Board member Rachel Hurd offered a different perspective on the expectations placed on the lunch programs and what it can do. "School lunch is one of those things where you're never going to make everyone happy," she stated. Complaints range from the poor nutritional value to students only being allowed one piece of pizza.
Marvel argued that given the state of the economy, raising prices is unfair to district parents. "This is the worst time to ask parents to shell out more money," he maintained.
Before a vote could be taken, the discussion shifted to holding off on a decision in order to give Assistant Superintendent of Finance Gary Black time to examine the numbers and determine if the increase is in fact what is needed to avoid a deficit.
School Board President Bill Clarkson asked if there was any reason to hold off on a decision.
Black said the word they've had from Chartwells is that waiting and changing the price structure once the school year has started could result in a falloff of sales.
Clarkson was unconvinced. "It's their recommendation, but we take the hit if they're wrong," he said.
After further discussion, the board voted to table the issue until it could get a more thorough examination of the numbers. It is expected to come up for discussion and a possible vote at the Aug. 18 meeting.
Superintendent Enoch said there are certainly questions and concerns around the food service program and there are things that need to be addressed if the district is to continue doing business with Chartwells.
"It's our expectation that either we turn this around this year or we rethink our food service," he stated.
Enoch gave a thumbnail sketch of the laundry list of concerns the district has with its provider. These included issues with management, equipment, organizational and service.