Free meals spark concerns

The two new members elected to the Patrick County School Board in November wasted no time getting to work at the board’s reorganizational meeting in January.

Brandon Simmons, of the Dan River District, was elected vice-chairman and appointed to several committees. (See related story)

Walter Scott, of the Smith River District, who also was appointed to several committees, asked to address the board after the meeting adjourned.

Because a member of the media was present, in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the board agreed to Scott’s request.

The discussion included his opinion of the school division offering a hot meal to youngsters when schools are closed.

“Soup kitchen is what I call it,” Scott said of the meal, and added that while he has no issue with feeding hungry youngsters, he wanted to gain a better understanding of the process.

“What’s that costing the system? Are we in the business for it,” Scott asked about the meals that are served in the Patrick County High School.

In addition to a hot meal, the school division partners with other school/community organizations to provide backpacks to students as well as offering coats, mittens and blankets. Representatives from other agencies generally are on hand to help register students for state insurance programs and the like.

Schools Superintendent Bill Sroufe said the meals — which are not regular events — are prompted by concerns for students, and to offer at least one meal.

The meals are paid from the division’s food service account, Sroufe said, and explained that account is self sustaining. He estimated the meal cost at $3 per person, and noted employees are paid to prepare the food.

Sroufe estimated 42 meals were served on January 5, for a cost of $126 plus employee pay. “I would say less than $300” total, he added.

“Did you just fix 42 meals,” Scott asked.

Assistant Superintendent Dean Gilbert said 150 meals were prepared that day, “but the food not used isn’t wasted. It can be frozen so it’s not thrown away.”

“It’s not practical,” Scott said. “Are we going to do one all over the county at different schools?”

“We wouldn’t do that,” Sroufe said at the January 19 meeting.

Another meal was held January 20, with 48 meals served.

“If you get this going, it’s going to snowball,” Scott said of the meals. He said if he lived in the Charity area, “it wouldn’t be fair for me to have to drive to high school to get a free $3 meal.”

Sroufe said residents from various communities attend the meals. For instance, an Ararat family that included seven youngsters attended the Jan. 5 meal. In addition to the meal, the family was provided backpacks filled with food that is collected by the food bank. They also received coats, if needed, he said.

Sroufe said if the board did not want the division to offer the meals, the program could be halted.

However, “I thought it was a good gesture because we have a very high reduced lunch rate. Some kids do not eat unless they are at school,” Sroufe said.

“I don’t disagree with that,” Scott said. “I know that we used to have a soup kitchen in Patrick Springs.”

He said he thought the county closed that facility due to liability concerns, and “here the school is getting in the same business,” he said.

Scott also said school funds should not be used to pay for the meals.

“You spend $300-$500, (if) you count that all up, that’s expensive. That’s my opinion,” he said, and asked for board member Annie Hylton’s opinion.

“I think it’s a good gesture,” Hylton, of the Peters Creek District, said. If “you feed 40 hungry children for $300, that would be kind of worth it.”

“The food bank (and) churches do it now,” Scott said. “I don’t see why the schools need to be involved.”

In other matters during the meeting, the board:

*Approved selling old iPhones that are no longer in use to FireFly IT Asset Recovery for $2,605.

When discussing the sale, Sroufe said generally broken phones are repaired or replaced.

Sroufe told the board members that these were items that could be sold in order to get something out of them. Scott raised the question if this was something they were going to turn around and re-buy and what the policy is if someone breaks one.

Sroufe said there isn’t a policy but typically a new phone is purchased.

Scott questioned if the surplus items were items that could be used as replacements. Sroufe said that the phones get used so much the batteries tend to go out.

Michelle Day made the motion to approve and Simmons seconded the vote. Scott voted no on the surplus items being sold.

Scott voted against the measure in the 4 to 1 vote. He did not elaborate then, but on Saturday, he said some of the phones were newer. “Why would they sell a newer phone,” he asked.

Scott said he would have a hard time selling something that can be used, and added the phones could be used as backups when others break instead of buying a new one.

He said that he does not believe that division staff should be able to go out and get a new phone just because one was released, especially if there is nothing wrong with the current phone. Scott said he thinks the phones should be used until they no longer work.

The board also met in closed session to discuss: Monthly Discipline Report; employment matters and the Monthly Personnel Report.

(Note: The Soup Kitchen in Patrick Springs relocated, but continues to operate.)

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