Board seeks more at-risk dollars

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July 27, 2011 - 12:00 AM

The Iola school district might have solved the $340,000 problem Tuesday evening. Students who qualify for free and reduced lunches but don’t utilize the assistance program cost the Iola school district $2,000 per student each year.
That coupled with those same parents often reneging on paying for the regularly priced school lunch, to the tune of $30,000 to $40,000 each year, costs the district an estimated $340,000 annually, according to USD 257 Superintendent of Schools Brian Pekarek.
“There is a stigma to filling out free- and reduced-lunch applications,” Pekarek told the USD 257 board, referring to the household income requirements attached to the program. A household of four must have an income of less than $41,348 to qualify for the meal assistance.       
Increasing the difficulty of finding a solution, neither school district nor its staff, by law, can require parents or guardians to complete the necessary applications. In addition, parents cannot be offered incentives for completing the application, said Colleen Riebel, USD 257 food service director.
Riebel said the guidelines do increase the difficulty of filling that financial hole but “we need to be good stewards of government funding.”
“With budgets as they are … everyone is trying to figure out ways to get people to fill out applications for funding for the schools,” she said.
Despite the red-tape hurdles facing USD 257, the board unanimously approved a measure authorizing district staff to offer a free meal ticket, per child, to parents who choose to fill out an enrollment packet during enrollment days at the high school Aug. 3 and 4. When doing so, Pekarek said staff will ask, not force, parents to fill out a free- and reduced-lunch form.
“We’re not forcing (parents) to fill out the forms. That’s illegal,” Pekarek said. “But we can say ‘here are your packet enrollment forms’ and then we can say ‘here’s your free- and reduced-lunch forms’ … but we can’t force them.”
The district staff assisting parents with the enrollment forms and meal assistance application, Pekarek said, will be adequately informed of the proper protocol so to prevent any misconduct.  
While superintendent at the Clifton-Clyde school district, Pekarek, who was hired by the Iola school district in February, said the district was able to acquire $25,000 in new funding for two consecutive years after getting more parents to fill out the free- and reduced-lunch application. USD 244 is about one quarter the size of USD 257, Pekarek said.

TUESDAY EVENING, USD 257 board members declared some 50 computers as surplus items and gave the go-ahead to give them back to the public, with at-risk households taking priority.
“These computers are still in good working condition, they just can’t run new software,” said Brett Linn, technology director for USD 257. “They can run what we have but if we wanted to buy new software, they just cant be used.”
Parents wanting one of the 8- to 10-year old E-Macs can sign up during enrollment days next week.
The computers will be distributed on a first-come first-serve basis for at-risk households. If not all are taken, other households may request the computers in the same manner.

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