The Bridgehampton Union Free School District has had to subsidize its meal program with tens of thousands of dollars each school year since 2008 when the school began contracting with Whitsons School Nutrition Corporation.
Facing those costs, as well as a looming two-percent cap on the property tax levy, earlier this month members of the Bridgehampton School Board and administration began talking about the feasibility of negotiating a new contract with Whitsons next year.
At the district’s re-organizational meeting on July 6, board member Douglas DeGroot questioned how the school could make its breakfast and lunch program one that could at least subsidize itself.
According to Bridgehampton School Business Administrator Robert Hauser, in 2008-2009 the program earned $45,000, but cost $118,000, operating $73,000 in the red. While the school district did budget $50,000 to subsidize the program that year, it ultimately had to use monies from the fund balance to cover an additional $23,000.
In 2009-2010, the meal program generated $78,000 in revenues, but cost $155,000, leaving a $77,000 deficit. However that year, the district had budgeted $100,000 to subsidize the program, leaving the fund balance untouched.
In the last fiscal year, the meal program generated $86,000 in revenue, but cost $153,000, leaving a $67,000 deficit, which the district covered with $50,000 in funding through the budget and with the remaining $17,000 coming out of the school’s fund balance.
According to Hauser, the contracted price for each breakfast and lunch served in the 2010-2011 fiscal year was $5.5096, although that price is expected to rise 2.9 percent for the next school year.
Hauser did note the introduction of food grown from the school’s greenhouse and garden has helped offset the cost of the meal program.
Where the program gets expensive, Hauser and several members of the board noted, is in what is considered “a la carte sales” as opposed to a designated school breakfast or lunch.
All meals purchased by adults in the district are considered an “a la carte” sale, as is the purchase of individual items — sometimes grouped together to form a meal — by students.
For example, said Hauser via email last week, in the last school year, an adult would have to pay $4.50 for a lunch, although the district is charged $5.5096 per meal by Whitsons. However, because it is considered “a la carte,” it must be divided by a conversation rate of $2.70, meaning it is actually considered 1.67 meals by Whitson’s standard and the district must pay Whitson’s $9.20 in total for the lunch.
During the re-organizational meeting, DeGroot wondered if increasing the cost of the adult meals would make a difference, but because they are considered “a la carte” items, Hauser noted the district would ultimately pay more money than it already does to Whitsons if it raised the price of adult meals.
“Whereas for the student meals, dollar for dollar, we realize the revenue,” said Hauser.
School Board President Nicki Hemby said charging students more than an adult was “just weird.”
DeGroot said his issue was not with providing meals for students, but with this contract, which, “just doesn’t make sense.”
Hauser noted it was the last year of the contract with Whitsons, and that the district could go out to bid for their meal program for 2012-2013.
He did add, however, that competition from larger schools in the area and federal subsidies make it difficult for small schools like Bridgehampton to negotiate a good contract with a company like Whitsons. That did little to ease DeGroots agitation.
“If you don’t take the full lunch, it is ‘boom’ — this fee and that fee,” he said.
“The best thing we can do is ask our kids to eat the prescribed lunches and each year ask Whitsons if we can pull some of the a la carte items off the menu,” said board member Elizabeth Kotz.
Later in the meeting, the board agreed to extend the contract with Whitsons for its final year, with Superintendent Dr. Lois Favre assuring the board that as the contract with Whitsons is in its twilight, she would look into other options for Bridgehampton School moving forward.
“There are smaller districts that have chosen other options like hiring a chef,” she said.