ROCKY MOUNT — A policy regarding the treatment of students who do not have money to pay for a school lunch took center stage at the Franklin County School Board meeting Monday night.

When students do not have money to pay for a full or reduced-price hot lunch from the school cafeteria, they are given three opportunities to “charge” a meal, according to policy adopted by the school board in 2017.

After that, students in grades K-8 are given a modified lunch of a peanut butter and jelly or cheese sandwich until they bring in money for lunch or their bill is paid. But students at the high school level are not given anything, county policy stipulates.

Community members criticized the policies, particularly the fact that high schoolers were treated differently than students at the middle and elementary school levels. They urged the board not to punish students for circumstances out of their control.

After a student shared on social media about his experience being denied a meal, Catina Wright organized an online fundraising campaign to collect money for student lunches. The goal was to pay existing balances and put any remaining money in an “angel fund” for future issues. As of Monday night the campaign had garnered more than $6,000 in donations.

Wright questioned why high school students had been singled out. She called the situation both heartbreaking and embarrassing for Franklin County.

“They get nothing, no food at all, which means that they are sitting in school all day hungry,” she said.

Sherry Scott, who started a nonprofit to fight poverty in Franklin County, said she was “furious” at the idea of a hot meal being taken away from a student, which she noted would be nearly impossible to keep private and cause the children to feel shame.

She recalled an instance from her time as a school social worker when this happened to a kindergarten student whose family was in crisis. Scott left board members with a list of suggestions for how the policies could be changed to minimize shame and better serve hungry students.

Later in the meeting, after the people who voiced their opposition had left, school board members agreed the policy needed to be revisited. However, it’s the board’s practice to provide at least a month to review proposed policy changes.

Jeff Worley, who represents the Rocky Mount District, said he didn’t see why the alternate meal could not also be provided to high school students.

“We need to feed these kids if it’s within our ability to do so, and I think it should be,” he said.

Charles Jamison, who represents the Blackwater District, said he felt the policy should be uniform across grade levels and it was “wrong” for children to be hungry at school.

Superintendent Mark Church said he would bring a revised policy that would allow for alternative meals to be provided to students K-12 to the school board next month for its consideration.

Board members also expressed interest in exploring additional changes, including those recommended by Scott.

Budget priorities

Church also gave a presentation on the school division’s budget priorities for the 2020-21 school year.

Declining enrollment continues to be a problem in Franklin County, as state funding is tied to average daily membership. But the division’s needs continue to grow.

Church presented a list of budget initiatives, ranked in order of priority, that amounted to more than $3 million. And that figure could grow; officials did not provide a cost estimate for their top priority, which is providing a salary-step increase for all employees.

Though the board held a public hearing, no citizens provided input.

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Casey Fabris covers business for The Roanoke Times, where she has been a reporter since 2015. Previously, Casey covered Franklin County.

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