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Let's serve lunch and a good education to all

On Oct. 23, I wrote a column about 8-year-old Holly, who had her regular lunch taken from her in the Oldsmar Elementary School cafeteria and replaced with a vegetable plate because she had lost her lunch money. Instead of a hot dog and all the trimmings, she was given bread, corn, juice and milk.

Boy, did the letters start rolling in, and most of them had no sympathy for Holly. Or me.

I thought some of them were a little harsh on Holly. While 8 is not too early to learn a lesson in responsibility, Holly didn't do anything that bad. For the only time this year, she lost her lunch money. I know grown people who lose their keys, wallets, even their spouses. I know someone who lost his car.

I expected a lively response aimed at me. I said some pretty sarcastic things about the school system.

But I didn't criticize any school employee, except the one who took the lunch out of Holly's hands. I know teachers, aides and administrators in the Pinellas school system who are talented, hard-working and dedicated.

They work in a bureaucracy that has gotten out of hand, in my opinion. I thought that Holly's story told us as much about the lack of common sense in that bureaucracy as it did about school lunches.

One of the letters was signed: Oldsmar Elementary School SAC and PTA Boards.

Ouch. The school's entire bureaucracy is mad at me. I don't know if all of the teachers and parents who belong to those groups approved the letter, but I am printing it in its entirety here. The letter asks for my help, and I will respond following the letter:

Oldsmar Elementary School is a very proud learning community that was very offended by Jack Reed's column. We are a Five Star School, committed to developing successful young people, both academically and emotionally. Mr. Reed's attack was without justification and certainly without research. It appears Mr. Reed's editorial was a "serving short of the facts."

We would like to respond with data. Oldsmar Elementary School serves 450-475 lunches a day. On the average, 10-15 students per day "forget" their lunch money. At minimum this amounts to $12.50 per day and $62.50 per week. This is 83.3 percent of the total fund given per semester ($75) by the PTA of Oldsmar.

When a child borrows from the office, we send home a note notifying the parents that their child borrowed money and to please pay back the office. The office staff sends follow up letters and regularly makes phone calls to this effect as well. Notices also appear in the school newsletter reminding parents of the need to pay back lunch loans.

Some of the children who forget their lunch money are repeat customers, some borrowing as many as 5 times. Pinellas County School Board Policy allows a child to borrow 3 times before receiving a vegetable plate. Many teachers, as well as office staff, have been known to dig into their own pockets when the children come up. And yes, some of the children who forget are first timers. Regardless of the number of times a child borrows or forgets, he or she is always given a lunch.

We agree it's not the child's fault if the parents do not repay their loans. For this reason we would like to enlist Mr. Reed's help and editorial expertise in solving this universal problem of irresponsible parents. Remembering that "it takes a whole village to educate a child," it may also take a whole village working together to solve this problem. The end result may be a concentration on what schools are in the business of: educating children and preparing them for the responsibilities of the world of work in the 21st century.

It occurred to me that the SAC and PTA were borrowing my sardonic tone when they asked for my "help and editorial expertise" in solving the shrinking lunch fund problem. But I'll answer the request as though it is heartfelt.

I agree that most of our energy should be spent on academics. And yet, I've never gotten even half as many letters on the quality of education in our schools as I did about Holly's lunch.

The SAC and PTA are right: We should all shift our focus from hot dogs to getting our children ready for the 21st century.

The School Board can lead the way. I was surprised to learn that the board actually has a detailed policy on when a child gets a vegetable lunch and when a full lunch. I've watch board meetings, and I know they have more important things to do with their time.

So what would I do?

As an administrator, I would put all of my energy into ensuring that children get a good education. It would take a lot of energy, because there are a lot of distractions.

School is for teaching children to read, write, do math, learn about history, release their creativity and think critically. To put their full attention on their studies, children need a number of things. Some of those are within the school's ability to provide, including a full meal.

I would guarantee every student at every school a full lunch. If children had to borrow the money, and if their parents didn't pay it back, I'd still give them a full lunch.

How would I recover the money? I would appoint a committee of parents to resolve the problem of unpaid loans. It sounds like Oldsmar Elementary already has such a group.

I believe those parents can come up with a way to replenish the lunch account better than the clunky bureaucracy can. When they do, I would reward them with a group lunch at the cafeteria.

That's it. At my school, every child would get a good education and a good lunch, without exception.

I know there are a lot of social problems that have been thrust upon the schools to fix or have become barriers between a child and his education. We all need to move on to solving those problems.

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