TAMPA — Eating lunch at school could cost Hillsborough students more money next year.
School officials are considering raising the cost of a meal between a quarter and 50 cents. The fees could rise again the following year, before getting pegged to the Consumer Price Index.
Several options to phase in the increases are on the table when the School Board meets on Tuesday. With the cost milk, bread and other staples soaring, school officials saw no alternative. And healthier meals cost more.
"Something's got to give," said Mary Kate Harrison, Hillsborough's general manager of nutrition services. "I don't have the option of not serving milk at every meal."
The proposal comes in the face of a bleak financial outlook. Board members learned Wednesday that state funding cuts and rising expenses have created a $64-million gap in their annual budget.
They are looking at everything from bumping up thermostats to slashing administrative budgets, with the prospect of more state cuts on the horizon. District officials are trying to spare the classroom, but say schools inevitably will feel a pinch.
Hillsborough, for example, can't do anything about a statewide cut in the reward money for A schools, from $100 to $85 per student. That would add up at a school like Riverview High, which could see $34,000 less in reward money, typically used for teacher bonuses.
The climate is particularly trying for the school lunch program that runs as a self-sufficient business within the district. Cafeterias have cut back the fresh fruit served to twice a week. They still are trying to serve healthier items, such as the trans-fat free biscuit added to the menu even though it costs more.
"We don't want to go backwards," said Harrison, who wants to be able to afford to swap sweet potato wedges for tater tots and to serve more whole wheat products.
She said Hillsborough will continue to offer free breakfasts to all students, a program considered cost-effective. She recognizes that families are strained. This year, Hillsborough saw an increase in the number of students qualifying for federally subsidized lunch.
Other key changes for next school year on the board's agenda include a proposal to revise bell schedules.
Start times for traditional high schools would move to 7:33 a.m. in an effort to create a uniform schedule. Students would be released at 3 p.m.
School officials also propose cracking down on students abusing cell phones. They want them keep them off and out of sight during the school day.
If students break the rules, they would receive one warning before having the cell phone confiscated. Three strikes would result in detention. On the fourth offense, the student would face in-school suspension.
Letitia Stein can be reached
at firstname.lastname@example.org or
(813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.