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What those ‘free’ lunches actually cost

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POSTED March 23, 2013 12:29 a.m.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

But sometimes “free” can be more expensive than you think.

The school free lunch program is a prime example.

Every year school districts must vote to accept the provisions of the free lunch program in order to continue receiving those monies, as well as all federal funds. One would think unless you opted out that once you agreed to accept the money it was clear you were agreeing to comply with the terms. After all, you don’t sign a mortgage agreement and then annually sign another document reaffirming that you’ll honor the original contract.

That’s not the way things work in Sacramento.

I admit I was a naïve 19-year-old when I first got elected to the Western Placer Unified School Board 37 years ago. Naïve in that I thought logic and common sense could prevail when it came to government.

After the second time in two years of voting on agreeing to the terms of the free lunch program, I asked the superintendent why we had to do it. I was told it was a state requirement.

Why, I asked, is it a state requirement? We already had agreed to accept the money and the terms that came with accepting federal help. One of those terms was agreeing to participate in the free and reduced lunch program. And since we were a high tax and low wealth district we certainly couldn’t afford to not do what was needed to secure federal money to augment classroom funding.

Each year the resolution came up I started voting no. Not because I was against the program, but because I didn’t see why we wasted time doing it every year when we had no choice. Finally, on my fifth year on the board, I asked the superintendent to calculate how much time and subsequently money we spent preparing the annual resolution. He came back to the board and said it was $125. This was back in 1980 when $125 actually was a lot of money.

When we voted on it that year it was 3 to 2 against rubber stamping the resolution. I was able to get two other board members to vote with me when they realized how expensive it was to do something that essentially was a frivolous formality, since we’d already agreed to the terms of the program numerous times previously.

Mel Lewis, a fellow trustee, asked John Bozzo, who was the superintendent, what would happen next. He said he didn’t know but he’d contact the state. Three days later Sacramento dispatched a small army of bureaucrats to an emergency board meeting. They did not threaten us or anything. They just said we had to approve it. The vote then went back to the usual 4-1. Two days later then-Assemblyman Wally Herger’s staff contacted the district saying their boss had gotten wind of what the district did and wanted to make a case that the annual requirement was a waste of money. Herger had served on the Rio Oso school board before being elected to the Assembly and eventually Congress. Since we reversed our action he couldn’t use it as a hammer at an upcoming committee hearing.

State bureaucracy inflates the cost of education in the name of accountability with dubious results.

Passage of Proposition 13 changed the dynamics of education in California. It set the stage for Sacramento to exert more control since they were picking up more of the tab. Besides standard per pupil payments, Prop. 13 opened the door to an explosion of categorical programs. Instead of giving districts lump sums, they were providing money piecemeal and attached conditions.

Many of those conditions generated paperwork and more paperwork. Just like the yearly vote on free lunches.

The best example I can think of was the support staff at Lincoln High (in Lincoln, Placer County) the year Proposition 13 passed. The classified staff in the office including all secretaries, and clerks numbered just three. Two years later there were seven. The enrollment of the high school never wavered much from 710 students. The big change was the state was now doling out the money and wanted reports and tons of paperwork.

That’s not to say some of the categorical programs weren’t effective. But even when they are, the extra support staff needed due to state regulations and paperwork requirements has sent the cost of education skyrocketing.

The best way to get more money into the classroom is to get the state bureaucracy out of the classroom.

 

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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