Crowd attends Itawamba school meeting

(PHOTO: More than 50 citizens attended Monday night's school board meeting to hear the matter of school lunchrooms discussed. – Photo by Alisha Holder Wilson)

By ALISHA HOLDER WILSON
Managing Editor

Parents, principals and cafeteria employees turned out in record numbers Monday night for the top item on the school board agenda, the discussion of the Mantachie school lunchroom.

More than 50 citizens were in attendance at the regularly scheduled meeting, a few to voice their opinions, some seeking answers, but most to hear what would be said.

A room full of idle talking fell quiet as the meeting was called to order and late-comers left in the hallway crowded around the doorway of the boardroom to hear the presentation of the spokespersons for the Mantachie parents made by Sid Kirksey, PTO president, and parent Renee Dill.

As Kirksey recounted events leading up to the recent lunchroom incident at Mantachie, it became clear the parents had done their homework.

He stated that on Monday, Jan. 3, a notice was posted on the cafeteria bulletin board that stated starting Tuesday, Jan. 4, any child with a lunchroom balance would be served a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and that their lunch tray would be taken up and thrown away. After seeing the notice, teachers, at the permission of Principal Ronnie Gholston, prepared this as a letter to send home to parents, placing at the bottom the amount each owed.

“They did this so the parents could have the opportunity to correct their deficit. They were doing exactly what Mr. Coker should have done,” Kirksey said.

On Tuesday morning, he continued, Dill contacted Superintendent F.G. Wiygul about the letter. He said he did not know anything about it but assured her that no food would be taken away from any student.

“In my experience with Mr. Wiygul, he is a man of his word. Either Mr. Wiygul failed to make clear to Mr. Coker that no food should be thrown away or Mr. Coker didn't do what his boss told him to do,” Kirksey said.

“I did not tell Mr. Coker that day point blank not to throw food away. A lot of this was miscommunication down from the board to me to Mr. Coker. The ladies at Mantachie did what they thought they were supposed to do,” Wiygul said.

Later that day, according to Kirksey, Principal Gholston talked to the lunchroom manager about identifying the kids before they went through the line, but she said she had to wait for the students to come through the line so they could be charged for any extras.

“We only mention this because we have heard Mr. Gholston blamed for the events that took place. He did the right thing … and tried to offer an alternate solution that would not have resulted in food being thrown away,” he said.

“Who's paying for the food that was thrown away? I can't see how any of you who have children could have let this happen,” said parent Jeremy Holland. “If this ever happens again in this county, every one of you should be ashamed.”

“As a parent and a taxpayer, it's not that I don't want to pay for the lunch or take responsibility. It just wasn't done right. It was humiliating. Let's keep in mind these are children. Throwing their food away is not the answer to the financial issue,” said parent Anita Davis.

Kirksey then referred to state guidelines addressing the issue of serving a child who forgets his money which states matters of this policy are left to the school's discretion. It also encourages schools to be flexible with young children who forget their money and provide some credit for these children or an alternate meal.

The last line in the guidelines, as read by Kirksey, states, “At a minimum, schools should ensure that parents are fully aware of the policy adopted for children who do not have their meal money.”

“Mr. Coker must have missed that line because no attempt was made by him to let the parents know about this new policy,” he said.

One Mantachie teacher sent home five letters Monday afternoon. Four of those parents paid their bill the next morning. The fifth parent had fallen on hard times and came in to apply for free lunches and was approved, according to Kirksey.

“They just needed to get a bill,” he said.

Dill then presented the board with an outline of things the parents would like to see done.

“We're not just here to point fingers. We're here to offer suggestions,” she said.

They include:

1. Forming a task force of Itawamba parents to look into some of the lunchroom issues.

“The parents of the Mantachie PTO would be willing to volunteer to help, and it's obvious from what has happened that y'all need some help,” Dill said. “I feel a task force could make many good suggestions to the board to help set lunchroom policy and procedure.”

“All the board members agree this wasn't handled right, but I think I can speak for this board and say we would like to address this issue in-house and come up with a policy,” said board chairman Tony Wallace.

2. Setting a policy on how to deal with outstanding balances, which includes sending regular statements to parents.

“A lot of parents said they have cancelled checks, and there's no way their balance could be right. You need to make sure the balances are right to begin with,” said parent Rodney Dill.

3. Removing the ice cream and slush machine from the lunchroom.

4. Standardizing lunches according to the USDA guideline for the federal lunch program on portion size.

“I've been concerned with the lunches for several years,” said Debbie Mitchell, registered dietician. “The children aren't given enough portions, and the kids go away hungry. The standards need to be met.”

Mantachie cafeteria manager Sandra Rayburn said, “They have choices. They can get three out of five components. A lot of students come through and get a piece of pizza and that's it. That's why they walk away hungry.”

5. Replace Kenny Coker as food service director.

A petition of 562 signatures was given to the board requesting a new food service director.

“The job description states that the goal of this job is to provide each school child with food of high nutritious quality in an atmosphere of cleanliness, cheerfulness and personal caring. I do not believe this goal was met on Jan. 4 at Mantachie,” Dill said.

“We did not handle it appropriately, and we're sorry that it happened,” Wiygul said. “We can't change it, but we can keep it from happening again.”

Dill also stated Coker does not turn in regular lunchroom reports and does not process free and reduced lunch forms in a timely manner.

According to Wiygul, Coker is out doing day-to-day operations sometimes training someone or working as a substitute manager or cashier.

“I support Mr. Coker. As one board member I am behind him 100 percent and will work with him to fix this problem,” said board member Eddie Hood.

Wiygul offered the following suggestions to the problem:

* No student will be exempt who has unpaid balances.
* Students need to be identified before entering the line.
* Board needs to determine at what amount they will begin collection efforts of past due accounts.
* Add an assistant manager so Coker can stay in the office and handle more administrative duties.
* Send statements out to parents consistently throughout the county.
* Be sure free and reduced forms are available to all parents.
* Set times during the day when parents can call and get their balances.

“The first thing we want to do is to give the parents an opportunity to review their statement and make sure it's correct,” Wiygul said.

Across the district, a statement will be run on every child this Friday. That statement will be sent home to the parents on Monday. If parents have any questions on their balance, they are asked to contact their child's school cafeteria manager.

A policy is currently being developed for board review.