NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The School Department believes it can operate its nutritional programs through February and into March but anything past that will be affected by how long the federal government is shut down.
"At the moment it is not at red alert status but the longer the shutdown continues the more likely we will have to have a consideration as to how we can maintain those programs," Superintendent of Schools Barbara Malkas informed the School Committee on Tuesday.
The city could have to tap into reserves until federal reimbursements arrive at some point.
The School Department's food services rely on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund 97 percent of all of its food programs. Those funds are reimbursed on a monthly basis.
The North Adams Public Schools also receive funding for its special education and reading programs through the U.S. Department of Education.
Malkas said the city's special education and Title I funds are "forward funded" and were received by the state last summer for fiscal 2019.
"The longer the shutdown goes on there are potentials for impact mainly because 90 percent of the federal Department of Education, nearly 4,000 employees, have been furloughed during the first week of the shutdown," she said. "So there's only 6 percent of the department staff available on any given time and they are the ones responsible for other programs and developing any changes with regards as to how funds can be used."
So while the state has the funds to disburse, the lack of manpower could delay the actual use of entitlement funds, she said, which are critical because they pay for 32.5 full-time equivalent positions in the school district.
Of more immediate concern, though, is the status of the food program. The school district has been offering free breakfast and lunches to all of its 1,400 students since 2015 through the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010
Malkas said she was informed in a Dec. 26 email from the state Office for Food and Nutrition Programs that Massachusetts had received its funding through January. Any deliveries through USDA will continue through February for items already purchased.
The public schools participate in five programs:
National School Lunch Program
National School Breakfast Program
School Milk Program
Child and Adult Care Food Program
Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program (which is guaranteed through February)
The USDA also funds the department's after-school snack program and summer school food program, which serves up to 4,000 meals during its six-week run. The School Department also offers a supper program geared to at-risk youth but open to all students under age 18.
Sixty percent or more of children within the city are eligible for free or reduced lunch; that high poverty rate was a qualifier for the public schools to enter into the subsidized full lunch and breakfast program. The programs ensure that children get at least two meals a day and, for some, a supper as well at Brayton School with their parents. School Committee member Tara Jacobs noted that the program is a critical resource for some families.
Malkas read a letter from Food Service District Director Corbett Nicholas in which he stated he could not determine at this point when the shutdown would affect them, noting that the federal funding runs through the state and reimbursements have sometimes lagged by two months.
The USDA allows departments to save no more than three months of operating expenses, he wrote.
"However, because this happens to be a year NAPS has taken on other programs and therefore additional monthly operating expenses, we do not have three months of current operating expenses saved," he stated. "If this shutdown is extended into March, I would say NAPS food services may have a difficult time paying the bills and may need to rely on school funds to get through until reimbursement is received."
Jacobs asked if the superintendent would have to act before the next month's meeting but Malkas thought it would be March before funding decisions would have to be made to ensure the program's sustainability though the school district would have a better picture by February.
"I think it's important to flag what might be coming down the pike so there are no surprises," Mayor Thomas Bernard, chairman of the committee, said. "It's the funding that supports our hungry students ... [if the shutdown continues] it will not be forthcoming and we will have to respond to that."
Funding was also on the minds of the City Council members a few hours later when a request by Councilor Jason LaForest to prepare for the School Department's needs was referred to the Finance Committee.
President Keith Bona had concerns of stepping on the School Committee's authority but LaForest said it was imperative the council be prepared before the need arrived. (The mayor did not attend the City Council meeting.)
"The bottom line is if the School Department eats up its reserves it falls to the city to feed its children," LaForest said. "This is a potentially huge problem for the city of North Adams."
Councilor Rebbecca Cohen, who has been spearheading discussions on the lack of healthy food access in the West End, agreed with LaForest.
"If we don't have a conversation before then we're going to have families in the West End in crisis," she said. "We need to be proactive."
There was agreement among the councilors that Malkas and School Committee members be part of the process since they did not know the particulars about the program.
Bernard earlier in the evening had said these decisions at the federal level "have real impacts on real residents of all our communities who often are most vulnerable in a lot of cases."
"We'll monitor it on the city side and on the district side to ensure that we are providing the services and support we can."
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