As part of her duties as Director of Business Operations for the Sag Harbor School District, Janet Verneuille oversees the cafeteria program. Recently, Verneuille sent out over 400 invoices to district parents whose children had outstanding charges. The school is owed around $44,000 for breakfast and lunch items purchased by students at the Pierson cafeteria. By Monday, Verneuille had received calls from at least 12 parents complaining about their bills, some of which were for several hundred dollars.
“I believe we weren’t diligent in billing,” said Verneuille at a board of education meeting on Monday, noting that these charges were from several months of activity. She added that the cafeteria’s point of sale (POS) system doesn’t allow the school to cap overdue charges and is better suited for a restaurant.
At the meeting four school board members supported suspending the Pierson food program altogether for the 2010-2011 school year, or at least exploring an alternative. The board members cited the uncollected debts and years of accruing annual deficits. Unlike Pierson, Sag Harbor Elementary does not have a cafeteria, and all students bring their meals to school.
In February 2009, former school business official Len Bernard said the program was $20,000 in the red but he believed it would turn a profit by the end of the school year. At that point, the school had invested in a new cash register, the POS system and trays, which were purchased to make the cafeteria solvent but added to the operating loss. A 2008-2009 audit report showed that the food service program cost $215,631 to run and brought in $171,614 in revenue and $21,981 in grants. At the end of school in 2009, the overall deficit was $89,827. Verneuille believes this shortfall has increased this school year and she hopes to have a final figure by the end of June.
School superintendent Dr. John Gratto further explained in an interview that the program is plagued by serving a small customer base of around 450 students. Two percent of the student body is eligible for government subsidies and last year the federal government paid $2,885 in reimbursements. School board president Walter Wilcoxen added that though the staff is cooking meals, the cafeteria facility is technically equipped only to warm and serve food. The school, he noted, would need to make roughly $200,000 in improvements to fully equip the kitchen to properly make meals.
While studying contingency legislation during the recent budget process, Dr. Gratto said he discovered a school is prohibited from subsidizing a lunch program if the board adopts a contingency budget. The school, Dr. Gratto added, isn’t mandated to provide a food service program.
“We were 15 votes away from not having lunch. In these times this subsidy is equivalent to a teacher. I say we have a moratorium on lunch,” said board member Dan Hartnett, adding that this would give the board time to find another vendor or study functional programs.
“I believe it should be suspended,” added Wilcoxen at the meeting. He pointed out that the school’s auditors said districts similar in size often spend around $10,000 to $30,000 annually to maintain a food service.
Board member Mary Anne Miller said in a phone interview that she would agree to suspending the program as long as the board committed to “looking into a better option,” and said she still wants to hear from parents and students. While board member Theresa Samot believed the hiatus would allow the board to look at introducing a healthier menu.
The handful of parents who attended Monday’s meeting appeared taken aback by the conversation.
“I am hearing very definitive statements. That tells me that you have made up your minds … have an open mind,” said recently elected school board member Chris Tice who will join the board in July. “The budget was a close victory and passed with this program intact. I am surprised that this wasn’t included in the budget you put to the public and that the discussion wasn’t had beforehand. I think the timing is unfortunate.”
Dr. Gratto said later that during the budget process the board focused on educational issues and saw the lunch program as a secondary issue. Wilcoxen added that the budget is a blueprint for spending limits and that the board still has to be diligent about controlling costs.
“I think you are going from one extreme to the other,” remarked parent Jennifer Houser. “I think this is a terrible idea.”
Resident Walter Tice urged the board to actively solicit the opinions of parents and students, many of whom are absent from most school board meetings. Tice pointed out that these two groups would be most affected by the program’s suspension. PTSA president Colleen Grigonis and parent Tom Gleeson added that they were both worried about student’s safety, noting that seniors would likely rush out of the building at lunchtime.
Since Monday, the board has been working on creating a committee to vet this issue and analyze program alternatives. The committee representatives will include Miller, Verneuille and hopefully members of the PTA, PTSA, student council and a local nutritionist said Wilcoxen. He added that the issue will be discussed at the upcoming business meeting on June 21.