School lunch program start-up a challenge at West Tisbury School

The recently reshingled West Tisbury School. — File photo by Janet Hefler

Ambitious plans by the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) for a kitchen renovation and new food service program at West Tisbury School by September are up against budget constraints and town meeting schedules.

The UIRSD school committee meets at 5 pm on January 23 at the West Tisbury School to certify a fiscal year 2013 (FY13) budget and assessments for member towns. The new budget includes funds for renovating the West Tisbury School’s kitchen and for starting up of a food service program that would also serve the Chilmark School.

As school officials and up-Island community members discussed this week, there is a lot to be done and some big challenges to face in bringing both projects to fruition.

Once certified, the FY13 budget’s fate still hinges on unanimous approval by Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury at town meetings this spring. If approved by voters, budget funds won’t be available until the new fiscal year starts July 1. That leaves school leaders with about a six-week window to get West Tisbury School’s kitchen renovated and a food service program in place before students return in September.

During the school committee’s budget discussions and public hearings last fall, Island Grown Schools (IGS) program coordinator Noli Taylor and other IGS leaders, along with a group of up-Island parents, spearheaded a push for the new kitchen and also the independent lunch program. The IGS program is a component of the non-profit organization Island Grown Initiative (IGI), which promotes locally grown food.

After much debate, the school committee voted on December 19, 2011, to approve a $9,129,943 FY13 total operational budget, an increase of $777,049, or 9.3 percent, over fiscal year 2012. The budget included the committee’s addition of $100,000 for the West Tisbury School’s kitchen renovation. To offset the increase, the committee voted to use $100,000 from excess and deficiency funds, which brings it down to 6.85 percent.

A kitchen to call their own

The Chilmark School does not have a kitchen or any equipment. The West Tisbury School has a stove, convection oven, salad bar, steam table and soup warmer.

South Mountain Company personnel have already donated time to draw up plans for the kitchen renovation that were presented to the school committee, school business administrator Amy Tierney told TheTimes in a phone conversation last week. She said the project would involve some electrical and plumbing work, and not much construction, other than moving a wall to open up a serving area.

When asked if the kitchen project would have to be put out for bid, Ms. Tierney said state law does not require it if volunteers are willing to do the work for free, which Ms. Taylor said had been offered. Although it is wonderful to get volunteers, Ms. Tierney added, one of her concerns about any project is who will be held accountable if something goes wrong or the job doesn’t get done.

“The $100,000 included in the budget is basically for buying a freezer and purchasing any other kitchen equipment we might need,” Ms. Tierney said. “We’ve been offered a generous and large donation of equipment from the Edgartown School’s old cafeteria, including a stove, steam table, dishwasher, and Hobart mixer, but we don’t know yet if it will work.”

What to serve and how to do it

While the kitchen renovation project is pretty straightforward, the new food service program involves a cornucopia of details.

Currently the up-Island schools and Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) are served by Chartwells, a national food service management company, under a contract signed last November with the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS). It included a caveat that the UIRSD might withdraw from Chartwells sometime during the contract period.

Currently, MVRHS food services director Leslie Floyd and a staff of six, employed by Chartwells, prepare about 120 meals a day for the West Tisbury School and an average of 8 to 12 meals a day, usually box lunches, for Chilmark School. Those are delivered up Island by van from the high school. Two part-time Chartwells employees do the prep work and heat and serve the food at West Tisbury School.

In a phone conversation with The Times last week, Chartwells district manager Gail Oliveira, who oversees about 16 school districts including Martha’s Vineyard, said satellite operations are always a challenge. “If you don’t have a functioning kitchen or equipment, you don’t have as many options,” she said. “We hope they build a kitchen at West Tisbury School. That would be great. We’ll be supportive in any way we can.”

Ms. Oliveira said the push from IGS and parents for locally grown food came as no surprise, and that Chartwells began supporting the movement a long time ago.

“We now have special groups that work with school districts across the states to hook up with local farmers,” Ms. Oliveira noted. “What Martha’s Vineyard wanted was a little bit more. When Leslie approached me and said Martha’s Vineyard schools wanted her to buy and serve more food grown on Island farms, I approached my bosses at Chartwells and said this is what Martha’s Vineyard wants; let’s give it to them.”

Paying the price

The up-Island school committee’s decision to start a food service program brought the realization that, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

Ms. Tierney went back through the budget to remove expenses related to Chartwells service and added two line items for costs the school district would now incur. She also included $114,600 in estimated school lunch revenues for next year.

A line item for $121,700 covers food service program salaries. It includes payroll obligations and benefits for four part-time employees, three at West Tisbury School and one at Chilmark School, based on what union food service workers currently employed by MVPS receive.

Ms Tierney also added a $68,500 line item to cover the cost of food, cleaning supplies, training, uniforms, computer software, kitchen repairs, commodity deliveries, equipment maintenance, utilities, and paper goods. Many of those items were previously provided through Chartwells and were not in the UIRSD budget.

What will voters say?

As plans move forward, the big question mark that remains is how voters will react to the budget increases.

“Everything is kind of temporary until Aquinnah votes at town meeting in May,” Ms. Tierney said. “Even if West Tisbury and Chilmark approve the budget, we would still need Aquinnah’s approval, because a regional agreement requires unanimous approval by all of the member towns.”

Aquinnah faces the biggest wallop. The town’s assessment in the UIRSD’s FY13 budget was already up by $141,000 due to an increase in grade school enrollment this year, before the kitchen renovation funds were added, Ms. Tierney said. The kitchen project pushed it up by $183,813 to $747,197, a 32.63 percent increase over FY12.

Chilmark’s assessment is $2,013,907, an increase of $128,308, or 6.8 percent over FY12. West Tisbury’s is $6,068,297, an increase of $253,611, or 4.36 percent over FY12.

The UIRSD uses a regional agreement based on enrollment, rather than the state’s statutory formula, to determine its member town assessments. Ms. Tierney said she has already had questions from the Aquinnah community about what the town’s assessment would be using the state’s methodology.

Moving forward

In a phone conversation with The Times this week, Ms. Taylor said that the volunteers for the kitchen renovation include contractor Jay Napior of Radius Construction and his crew who had volunteered to do the kitchen renovation after July 4. She said a formal planning process for the food service program has not been started yet and no model chosen.

A committee made up of parents, teachers, and administrators has been examining the food program at the West Tisbury School, Ms. Taylor said, and a group of Chilmark School parents recently formed a Parent-Teacher Organization food sub-committee.

“So now we’re working on building a committee for both of those school groups to come together and do some common visioning around what we want to see for the up-Island school program, that we have this potential of being able to manage within the communities and within the schools,” Ms. Taylor said.

Their goal is to complete the background work and program plans before the school year ends.

Ms. Taylor said many people in the up-Island community have offered to volunteer their services, including chefs, caterers, and parents with experience in the restaurant industry.

When asked if any of the volunteers have experience in starting up a food service program and knowledge of the stringent Federal and state regulations involved, Ms. Taylor said the up-Island committees are very aware of the complexities of the National School Lunch program.

“There is so much support coming from the community, including national leaders in the school food movement, like Kate Adamick from Cook for America, who has been doing some consultation work with us,” Ms. Taylor said. “She has worked with school districts all over the country in finding ways to improve their meal programs and to be more cost-effective at the same time.”

“It’s really an exciting place for everyone to get to, and of course this is still in the context of wanting to do a lot of outreach and support for the overall school budget, leading up to the spring town meetings,” she added.