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Homeless get free use of city parks but not hungry kids seeking a meal?
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

You want to see the face of hunger?

Then drop by Lincoln Park by the swimming pool — or 19 other parks throughout Manteca — this summer between 11 a.m. and 12:20 p.m.

You will see kids patiently — with grateful parents in tow — waiting for a green van. During their wait people in the surrounding neighborhood who never have talked to each other before chat it up. They talk about their kids, the neighborhood, and the news topic du jour and sometimes about the need to keep tabs on suspicious activity.

Then when the green vans clearly marked with Manteca Unified School District Nutritional Education Services arrive, the kids wait with anticipation as workers set up a foldable table and put out the day’s offerings — fresh fruit, veggies, milk and a nutritional sandwich. There isn’t a morsel of junk food. If they’re lucky it’ll be BBQ day. The workers will pull out a propane powered grill and fire it up to grill hotdogs and such.

Rarely is there any food left uneaten. For some it will be their only nutritional meal of the day as what is available at home doesn’t come close to the nutritional standards of the Manteca Unified program. For others it may be one of only two times they eat that day.

There is no income restriction. Kids just have to be under 18. Given that Manteca is being crushed in the shock waves of the Bay Area housing market, almost 60 percent of the households with kids qualify for free or reduced meals under federal guidelines. That is why’s there is no charge for the summer weekday lunches that are funded by federal grants.

But this program that served 75,782 meals last `summer districtwide with the overwhelming majority within the city limits of Manteca is being threatened. That’s because the city is contemplating a $36,000 charge for the use of city parks. The reason? It’s because they book the use of a small grass area and advertise that they do. And also some kids who linger after the district workers have made sure all trash is picked up may not deposit their milk cartons in the trash.

Eight to nine hours later the homeless — like clockwork — will gather for a BBQ almost every night in the Lincoln Park picnic shelter after the park closes. They do not book the use of the picnic shelter and BBQ probably because under city rules the park is closed and they are using it illegally. It is also advertised word of mouth. Given it is a year round use —  in the winter it serves as a late night warming area as several homeless will sit near the BBQs where the coals are still radiating heat — the city must be allowing $144,000 worth of cost recovery on the table. Rest assured the homeless are not as neat as the hungry kids.

Let’s fast forward to mid-August. School is back in session. A lot of families have a dilemma. They must commute long distances to feed and house their families. More often than not it is both parents in a two-parent household. Sometimes it is a single parent household.

This means if there isn’t an older responsible kid in the house, young kids go unsupervised until it its time to head to school or they are left on their own until parents return home in the late afternoon or early evening.

The was a time when some parents had no choice but to drop off kids as early as an hour before school campus gates open. Short-term morning care is almost non-existent if there is no neighbor, friend or family able to help. What is available is often unaffordable for many. Over the years more than a few Manteca teachers started making it a habit to arrive to work way ahead of time so students they knew could go into a warm classroom where it was much more safe while waiting for school to start.

The same dynamics are at play after school but on a significantly larger scale. 

It is why the City of Manteca came up with the fee-based kids zone that operates at almost every elementary campus within the city limits as well as a before school program at some locations.

Given it is five days a week, 170 or so days a year a multiple campuses there is a sizable cost in terms of utilities and such for the district to absorb. It is easily two to three times the $36,000 fee based on 20-minute a day use of grass at various city parks to feed hungry kids.

Notice the common theme? It involves kids. More specifically it involves the welfare, health and safety of kids.

Once upon a time the dollar values of the facilities the school district used that were owned by the city and vice versa to serve kids didn’t matter. That’s because the two entities had a quid pro quo agreement where no money exchanged hands. Anyone with a lick of sense knew from the start the district would end up on the short end of the bean count given the kids zone programs and the number of city recreation programs using school facilities.

That was before the school resource officers entered the equation. The city started stationing them at Sierra, East Union and Manteca High schools at no charge in the mid-1990s. Then when the recession hit the city took a somewhat bigger financial blow proportionately than the school district. The city ended up laying-off 12 police officers and could have been forced to lay-off off two or three more — the school resource officers — if the district hadn’t offered to pay for part of their salaries and benefits.

That said three years prior the voters approved the half cent public safety tax that ballot language called for 15 police officers and 15 firefighters to be hired with two of those police officers explicitly delineated as school resource officers to combat juvenile crime.

The district about nine months ago asked for a detailed billing before they cut a check for $300,000 for the three school resource officers. The billing wasn‘t immediately produced. Then people started looking into the quid pro quo arrangement. One side had an instantaneous accounting, the other didn’t. The side that didn’t produce an instantaneous accounting set out to find ways to pump up the fees they would have charged the other side so they could cancel each other out.

Further digging found that the city was charging the schools for use of the golf course, the transit center, and senior center when they clearly weren’t supposed to if there was a true quid pro quo agreement in place

Then the current school district staff did some further digging and found a legally binding voter directive that neither side was aware of although the city certainly had a legal obligation to remember it and honor it.

Manteca has been charging the school district for the majority cost of three police officers designated as school resource officers at $100,000 apiece or $300,000 in total. That was happening despite a voter directive that two of those positions would be covered by the Measure M public safety sales tax.

Clearly the district should only be charged for one SRO to the tune of $100,000 but not three.

It is also clear the school district stepped up in the depth of the recession to find a way to write a check so the SROs that do an invaluable service not just for the schools but for the community as a whole didn’t go away.

Before a lot of good programs get pulled down a rabbit’s hole, it is time for elected school board members and elected council members to hit the brakes.

Going forward no money should exchange hands for the use is the facilities with the exception of an agreement specifically covering four multipurpose rooms functioning as community gyms at four elementary schools.

The district should only pay $100,000 for one SRO going forward.

As for the current fiscal year ending in 41 days the city should tear up the entire bill and not charge $100,000 in exchange for the school district not seeking to claw back up to $1.4 million they paid for two of the three SROs given the fact they offered to pay for them in the first place.

It’s the most equitable solution for taxpayers who would get dinged with any attempt to “right” past wrongs.

It also avoids the district having to run a summer lunch program with fewer locales that are within easy walk distance by dropping city parks in favor of school campuses and it makes sure that hundreds upon hundreds of young kids are not left unsupervised before or after school.


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 or 209.249.3519.