NORTH ATTLEBORO — It could get more expensive to buy a lunch in local unless the state’s Legislature can pass a budget keeping the meals free.
The school committee approved a proposal to up the cost of in-school at its meeting last week, but that may be moot if lawmakers can reach a compromise that will keep the food free to all students, Catherine Blake, assistant superintendent, explained to the board.
The federally supported universal school meals program, part of the government’s COVID-19 relief program, is due to expire June 30, Blake, said.
The Massachusetts House version of the $50 billion state budget includes $110 million for a year-long extension of the program. The Senate version does not and that must be resolved by a conference committee, Superintendent John Antonucci noted.
While the fate of the program is uncertain, Antonucci said, “we wanted to go ahead and give families notice. We don’t take the increase lightly.”
The pre-pandemic prices would not allow the food program to be self-sustaining, officials said.
If state support does not come through, lunches at the elementary schools would go from $2.50 to $3; at the middle school from $2.60 to $3.50; and at the high school from $3 to $3.75.
“If the state comes through with the funding, we are not going to be charging students,” the superintendent says.
Hockey fees rise
Hockey families, on the other hand, will be paying more for their children to play. The committee OK’d a “surcharge” of $500 for varsity and $250 for junior varsity over the $150 families now pay for the sport. And the added funds had the backing of hockey boosters.
Candace Kojoian, president of the hockey booster club, told the board, “It’s tough to ask these families to fund-raise. We felt terrible.”
The surcharge will not affect the $600 cap on fees families pay for activities. Kojoian noted expenses for the program have risen 69% to $31,500. Without parent support the program would not exist, she said.
“This is not a solution,” Antonucci said. “It is a step towards a solution.”
The comment portion of the meeting was taken up by representatives of three bargaining units for the paraprofessionals, office staff and cafeteria workers currently in contract talks with the committee. Union members held a rally prior to the meeting and several members stood around the commitee’s meeting room at the Woodcock Administration building holding signs.
The union members all urged the committee to agree to new contracts with the groups, some of which have been in talks for a year. Nichole Reminder, president of the North Attleboro Federation of Teachers, told the board, “After 14 months of negotiations we felt the need to come forward to the school committee to be heard.”
She said a settlement was crucial to attract and retain workers in those areas. Committee members did not respond to the comments.
The board did give high marks to Antonucci in his first formal evaluation since becoming superintendent last August. The members said that, for the most part, Antonucci had met or exceeded expectations. A final vote on the evaluation was tabled until August.