By John Chambless

Staff Writer

In the face of increasingly stringent regulations for school lunches, it looks likely that Unionville-Chadds Ford High School will withdraw from the federal school lunch program next year.

At the June 9 school board meeting, the supervisor of food service, Marie Wickersham, laid out the issues she and her staff have been grappling with since strict federal regulations began three years ago. Under Obama administration guidelines, school lunches have been phasing out high-salt, high-fat menu items and phasing in more fruits and vegetables. For the 2014-15 school year, however, the regulations will dictate maximum sodium levels, mandate whole grains exclusively, and eliminate the sale of candy or baked goods – even for fundraisers – during school hours. Wickersham listed other requirements in the pipeline, including the setting of minimum and maximum calorie counts, and the elimination of anything but 1 percent white, skim or non-fat flavoried milk choices. 

“Nobody is against good nutrition,” Wickersham told the board, “but it's only good nutrition if kids will eat it.”

She explained that the limit of 740 milligrams of sodium will eliminate many of the current menu items. Also, finding whole grain equivalents for things like breading on chicken, or in pretzels, is difficult, more expensive, and unpopular with students. The requirement for “smart snacks in schools” means that there will be no sales of standard fundraising items like Joe Corbi pizzas. There will be no Gatorade sold in schools, despite high demand from students who participate in athletics. There will be no caffeinated beverages or regular teas available. Beverages could be nothing but diet drinks or water.

Wickersham said the school just found out the details of the new regulations two weeks ago, and they are slated to go into effect on July 1. The school also found out the UHS lunch program will be federally audited for compliance in 2014. 

Wickersham said about 25 percent of the high school's students buy school lunches, which is down from about 32 percent in the 2012-13 school year. The lunch program has always broken even and supported itself, she said, but faced with having to institute foods that are more expensive and not popular with students, she predicted a significant drop in sales and profits. That would mean the district would have to help fund the program for the first time in about 24 years. 

Faced with a likely decline in sales, and guidelines that are increasingly hard to meet, Wickersham recommended withdrawing from the federal school lunch program. The district will therefore not be reimbursed a percentage of each lunch sold. “Because we won't be claiming reimbursements, we will not be required to put these stricter requirements into place,” she said. “We feel that these new guidelines are not in the best interests of the school.”

The school will continue to serve the current menu items, which reflect the nutritional requirements of the district's own Wellness Policy and are well ahead of many school districts nationwide. Students will not notice any changes, she said.

“It's not like we're serving cotton candy or sodas here,” Wickersham said. “We have a nice variety of extremely reasonable menu choices that are healthy for our students. That will not change.”

Board president Victor Dupuis noted that several area school districts have also balked at next year's regulations, and there is some pushback nationwide as well. The new federal regulations will be put into effect in the district's elementary schools as of July 1, Wickersham said. Only the high school would opt out of the national lunch program. 

The board will vote on the issue at next week's board meeting. Dupuis said that the board seemed to be in favor of Wickersham's recommendation.

In other business, the board and administration discussed the results of a pilot program that began in November to look at whether hiring support staff from outside agencies was more cost effective than hiring staff members with health benefits. There were five positions filled with contracted workers during the pilot program, according to Ken Batchelor, the assistant to the superintendent. They were hired as the result of retirements or resignations. Transportation workers and food service workers were not part of the pilot program.

Out of the five contracted positions, two “led to some difficult situations where we were not pleased with the level of work,” Batchelor said. Those workers were, however, easy to replace since the district had to only call the agency and request another worker, he said. One of the hires was an excellent choice, but has since moved on to other employment. The cost savings to the district was between $8,000 and $12,000, as compared to hiring workers who had health benefits, Batchelor said.

As a result, the administration did not recommend continuing with contract services, except for paraprofessional positions. Current classroom paraprofessionals will continue with the salary and benefits they were hired for, Batchelor said. Any future openings, however, could be offered as part-time positions without health benefits. “This will happen through attrition,” Batchelor said. “Though retirements or resignations. We'd look at reducing the number of positions or elmininating health benefits. We believe we have a good pool of candidates who are looking for this sort of part-time position. They would be our people, and they would want to work here.”

District superintendent John Sanville said, “We are looking at some difficult budget times in the next three or four years. We need a program in place so that our kids don't notice anything is different, but we can realize a cost savings.”

Board member Kathleen Do said, “I had concerns about contract services, but I feel comfortable with the direction we're moving in. This way, we're more likely to attract a good pool of people who want to work for our district.”

The board will announce at next week's meeting the name of a new principal who will take over at Chadds Ford Elementary School. There were 60 candidates for the position, Sanville said. Board member Jeff Hellrung said the hiring process was thorough and involved a wide range of interviews. “I think we can guarantee that the Chadds Ford community will not be unhappy with our choice,” he said, smiling.

Also at next week's meeting, the board will pick a replacement for Eileen Bushelow, who recently resigned from the board. At the beginning of the June 9 meeting, the board members heard statements from four candidates for the open seat -- Dr. Bennett Baird, Arnie Klingenberg, Robert Sage and Hsinte James Yen. After questioning each candidate, Dupuis thanked the men for attending and said, “We are blown away by how solid all four of you are. You're giving us a very tough decision.”

During a meeting of the curriculum and educational technology committee that preceded the board meeting, the board heard about several trips planned for the coming school year. Proposed trips are a UHS Girls' Lacrosse Team trip to the American Lacrosse Camp in St. Petersburg, Fla., during spring break of 2015; a seventh and eighth grade bus trip to Quebec City from Feb. 12 to 16; a Spanish excchange trip to Spain in spring 2015; and an International Club trip during the summer of 2015. The proposed destination is India, where students will support Free the Children, a charity for young people in India. The board was hesitant about the security situation for such a destination, and asked for a backup destination in case enrollment for the India trip falls below expectations. The board will vote next week on approval of the trips.

The board will meet on June 16 at 7:30 p.m., during which they will approve the final budget for the 2015-15 school year. Visit www.ucfsd.org for details.