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Lunch price may climb in school cafeterias

The School Board also will consider letting fundamental school students take buses and wear shorts.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


LARGO -- The last time the Pinellas County School District changed cafeteria lunch prices, another George Bush was president.

By increasing efficiency, adding programs and building its customer base, the district has kept school lunch prices between $1.25 and $2.25 since 1989. On Tuesday, the Pinellas School Board will be asked to raise lunch prices a quarter.

"Now, after 11 years, we've gotten to the point where we need to ask for some help from our paying students," said food service director Gray Miller.

Also Tuesday, the School Board will consider two fundamental changes to fundamental schools that have riled parents, teachers and administrators.

Superintendent Howard Hinesley is recommending that 3,000 students who attend the district's seven fundamental schools have access to bus service. After surveying parents, he also is recommending that fundamental students be allowed to wear shorts.

"We don't promote a relaxed atmosphere," said Coachman Fundamental Middle School principal Dawn Coffin, whose school opposes shorts on campus. "Teachers can teach here because we don't have a casual attitude and the discipline issues."

Back in the cafeteria, Miller, the food service director, said the price increase cannot be avoided.

Pinellas schools' food service is funded through paying customers, with some money also coming from federal and state governments. The federal government suggests that districts keep enough money in their reserves to operate for three months. Pinellas is now close to that point.

Since 1989, Miller said, the cost of food has climbed 96 percent and the cost of labor has increased 85 percent. To offset those costs, the district has lured more customers for full-price meals and a la carte snacks. The district has sought extra revenue through after-school snacks and other services.

The recommended price increase also affects breakfast prices. Elementary students would pay 10 cents more, secondary students would pay 35 cents more, and adults would pay an additional 50 cents.

The increase would not affect students who get free or reduced-price lunches, Miller said. Though Pinellas' increased prices would remain competitive with surrounding school districts, Miller expects to lose about 5 percent of the 61,000 customers the district serves every day.

"After everybody gets used to it, the kids do generally come back," Miller said.

The price change would increase revenue by $1.4-million.

The proposal to provide bus service to and from fundamental schools would cost about $2-million, with most of that in one-time capital costs to buy buses. Hinesley and School Board attorney John Bowen have advised the board to approve the recommendation, saying an agreement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to end a desegregation lawsuit requires that busing be provided for countywide magnet and fundamental schools.

The change would not go into effect until fall 2003, when the district will start letting all students choose their own school. Hinesley has said it's only fair to provide buses for fundamental students if that service is available to all other students in the district.

Fundamental schools were created about 25 years ago with a philosophy of strict discipline and parental involvement. In fact, students can be kicked out of fundamental schools if their parents do not participate in required meetings.

For the most part, parents of fundamental students are required to drive their children to school. Fundamental principals and parents said this policy has increased parental involvement and given schools the flexibility to hold after-school detentions and programs.

At Coachman Fundamental, some students ride public buses to school. School leaders there say they have not noticed a drop in parental involvement.

But Len Kizner, principal of Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary School in St. Petersburg, predicted that if bus service is offered, parents could simply refuse to pick up their children from after-school detentions if it's inconvenient or if they don't have a car. And that would undermine the strict rules of fundamentals, which require parents to alter their schedules to be involved in school and take responsibility for their children.

"If you make this change in transportation, I believe it's the beginning of the end of fundamentals," he said. "It will only lead to the examination of other fundamental policies. I understand the fairness issue, but I don't know if this school is for everybody."

The School Board will begin discussing the transportation issue at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Board members will get their first look at the shorts dilemma, but won't vote on it until later this spring after setting a public hearing.

At four of the fundamentals, more than 75 percent of parents supported shorts. One school had 74 percent support, and one had 67 percent support. Only Coachman was far below half, with only 24 percent support.

Teachers and administrators at the schools were not surveyed.

At Coachman, the principal and the SAC president said that allowing students to wear shorts would change the school's businesslike atmosphere and force teachers to police how long shorts are. Even on field trip days when students are allowed to wear shorts, they said they notice that the students' behavior suffers.

The SAC president also is frustrated with how the issue was raised in the first place.

Susan Haggitt said she understands that several parents brought up the issue to the School Board without first doing so at school. Haggitt worries that in the future, any parent with a problem can seek a remedy from the School Board without going through the proper channels first.

"I don't really think the parents understand what the overall impact of this decision could be," Haggitt said. "I think they will be disappointed when they see a breakdown in the discipline of the children."

Both fundamental school proposals have inspired parents to flood district officials with letters and e-mails. While many parents support shorts and some do support transportation, many just don't want fundamental programs meddled with at all.

"It's very hard to justify changing programs that have been so successful for over 25 years," said Christine Lowry, who supervises fundamental and magnet programs. "Is the change going to improve our schools? Will transportation improve the schools? Quite possibly, it will. Will shorts improve our school? Probably not."

If you go

The School Board will meet at 5 p.m. Tuesday at district headquarters, 301 Fourth St. SW in Largo. Board members will consider the fundamental school busing issue at 7 p.m.

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