With a swipe of a card, high school students will soon be able to buy lunch while improving the department’s ability to gain additional federal funds that could, over time, add up to millions of dollars.
Following approval from the School Committee, the school department will implement an electronic Point of Sale (POS) system for the school lunch program in hopes of getting more families to enroll in the free and reduced lunch program.
The move was approved at Wednesday’s special committee meeting. It is estimated the system will cost $131,650, which includes all necessary equipment, software licenses, installation and training district-wide. But the department plans to first implement the system at the secondary schools, for a cost of $58,415, before rolling it out to elementary schools.
According to Anthony Ferrucci, director of business affairs, the department will start testing the equipment by Christmas and plans to install it in all three high schools over February vacation so it’s in place when students return.
The matter came up for a vote at the Nov. 8 School Committee meeting but was held after School Committee vice chairman Patrick Maloney requested more information about what it would mean if Sodexo, the district’s food service provider, paid for and installed the system themselves, which was included in their bid for the food service contract.
At that meeting, Ferrucci encouraged the committee to approve the department purchasing and maintaining the system instead of Sodexo.
“I believe it’s in our best interest to invest in it,” he said. “We will purchase the equipment and own it. If something changes with the Sodexo contract, we wouldn’t have to worry about getting the equipment and software [again].”
Ferrucci said the system would benefit the district as well as students, by speeding up the paying process, as they would only have to swipe a card while waiting in line, and increasing enrollment for the free and reduced lunch program, which would result in additional state aid funding to the department. He said 35 to 36 percent of students are currently enrolled in free and reduced lunch at the junior high level, but that percentage drops down at the high schools, where it is only 30 to 32 percent.
“If we can increase [enrollment] by a few percentage points, we can demonstrate to the state that they’re underfunding us by millions of dollars,” Ferrucci said. “I expect the prepayment plan [enrollments] to ratchet up in the community. We did this in Coventry, my previous district, and that was the case.”
Ferrucci also cautioned against having Sodexo purchase and maintain the system because if they ran a deficit and couldn’t cover costs, the school department would have to pick up the tab.
“[Sodexo’s] showing an approximate $60,000 deficit when trying to establish a balanced budget, so we may have to cover the deficit ourselves out of the general fund budget,” he said. “We need to be prepared for that scenario.”
Although he wanted to see if Sodexo could pay for and maintain the system, Maloney acknowledged that if the district can get more students enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program, the additional state aid could offset the cost of the district implementing and maintaining the system.
At the Nov. 16 special meeting, which Ferrucci was unable to attend, Rosemary Healey, director of human resources, said the committee had two options if it were to move forward with the POS system – pay for the equipment now and keep it, or renegotiate with Sodexo to have them pay for it and keep it, which means if they leave the district, the equipment goes with them.
“This will affect state aid and it will be the best and most efficient way to keep track of free and reduced lunch students while allowing them access to the benefits of the system without feeling embarrassed,” she said.
Healey described the POS as a swipe-card system in which students would have their own card, possibly with a debit code to allow parents to add money to the account, which they would wear on a lanyard around their neck and keep tucked inside their shirt when not in use.
“This will cut down on time in line, which will be very beneficial to the system,” she said. “It’s critical to get this up and running as soon as possible.”
While Healey admitted the system may result in a slight reduction in lunch program personnel, she said it would improve the overall process for lunch staff.
“The most stressful part of the job is counting the money, so this will alleviate that and allow for more supervision time, which is also part of the job,” she said.
Superintendent Peter Horoschak said he was also in support of the system.
“In my experience, even though there may be some stumbling blocks along the way, something like this really changes the system in a positive way,” he said.
Healey said the system would feature the NUTRIKIDS software package, which she described as a state-of-the-art point of sale service system.
Committee member Terri Medeiros said her sister, who’s involved with the Westerly school system, which has implemented a POS system, said the biggest thing with implementing is getting students to wear their cards around their neck and keep track of them. She said one of the ways to accomplish that was to collect the cards on Fridays and keep them in the classroom over the weekend, to be passed out again on Mondays.
The committee’s consensus was it would be best for the school department to keep and maintain the equipment itself, and more importantly, that if it brings more students into the free and reduced lunch program, the system will eventually pay for itself.
“This is a wise use of funding and it’s the absolute way to go,” said Beth Furtado, chair of the School Committee. “Properly tracking free and reduced lunch students is important to state aid, so anything we can do to encourage parents to get their kids to use it [free and reduced lunch program] is critically important.”
Healey said there are easy available drop points in the high schools and junior highs for the system to be installed, but a wireless system may be used in the elementary schools. Information and data gathered once the card is scanned will be sent to the central administration office, which will monitor it. Ferrucci said the cost of purchasing the system would be offset by transferring funds out of the personnel budget using savings realized from retirements.
In other committee action, the committee exercised its option of a two-year extension to the First Student contract for in-district special education transportation. The current contract expires in June 2013, but the amendment approved by the committee extends it to June 2015. Prices in the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 fiscal years reflect a 2.5 percent annual increase.