Discussion gets emotional on breakfast program decision
JANESVILLE Several Janesville School Board members bemoaned the recent decision to replace school breakfast clubs with the federal free-breakfast program Tuesday.
The board accepted Superintendent Karen Schulte's contention that the decision is about operations—her decision to make, not the board's.
But in a sometimes emotional discussion, several board members expressed displeasure with how the changeover was handled.
Breakfast clubs run with volunteers and donations have operated in some Janesville schools for many years. The district-run, federally funded program will take over for them Jan. 28.
The district sent a letter to the volunteers last fall, announcing the change.
District food-service staff will take over the program. Federal reimbursements are expected to pay the entire cost.
District CFO Keith Pennington offered a long list of reasons for the change.
The federal breakfast program doubled or tripled participation when it was installed at the district's middle schools, Pennington said. He argued that more students getting a healthful breakfast could improve their performance in school.
Pennington said the federal program avoids the potential for lawsuits if a volunteer serves tainted food, such as peanut butter that was recalled recently.
Volunteers are not background-checked, another potential source of lawsuits, Pennington said, and they are not trained in food safety or special dietary needs.
Board member Kevin Murray, a member of his church's breakfast club at Jackson School, asked whether other volunteers are background-checked. They are not, but they are supervised by paid staff, said Superintendent Karen Schulte.
Feeding students is subject to many more regulations than in years past, and the needs of students have changed, Pennington said.
Murray said the volunteers were "blindsided" by the announcement.
If volunteers knew they should get background checks, they would have done them years ago, and if they knew there were problems with what they served or how they served it, they would have changed those, too.
"Nobody ever told us or gave us any idea we were doing something wrong," Murray said.
In addition to these safety and liability concerns, "now we have food police serving breakfast, as well," Murray said.
Schulte responded, saying food-service workers are not food police; they are loving, kind professionals.
Murray retorted that he was not referring to the workers, but to "you and your administration and how you handled this."
Board President Bill Sodemann agreed the administration could have handled the communications better. He said the federal breakfast program is usurping the parents' responsibility of feeding their own children.
"I think it's a shame that we've gone this far in our government," Sodemann said.
Food Services Manager Jim Degan, apparently not responding directly to Sodemann, said the federal breakfast program has existed since 1975.
Pennington said the district shouldn't deny children a nutritious breakfast because of ideology.
Board member David DiStefano said his bottom line is that the change is the best for children, but he is sorry that many people's feelings were hurt.
It was clear board members had heard from volunteers who were upset at being replaced. Both administrators and board members went out of their way to praise their efforts over the years and to invite them to find other volunteer opportunities in the schools.
"We need you in so many ways," board member Kristin Hesselbacher said.