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Buncombe school system announces programs as board tackles controversial capacity count
In what is surely good news for food-stressed families, Buncombe County children will be soon be able to get free meals – regardless of the ability to pay – through two programs announced Tuesday at a Buncombe County Board of Education meeting.
Beginning June 11, any child up to age 18 can get free breakfasts and lunches during the summer at one of 22 locations, including the YMCA, four Buncombe County Parks, Greenways and Recreation pools and the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville’s Deaverview Apartments.
Then, beginning next school year, all children enrolled in a Buncombe County school can eat breakfast at school for free – regardless of whether they qualify for the schools’ free and reduced lunch program.
Lynette Vaughn-Hensley, child nutrition director for Buncombe County Schools, said the summer program, called “Super Summer Meals,” is a pilot program the state is testing in 10 counties.
She estimated that the summer program would serve 1,650 meals every day in Buncombe County alone in the program’s first year.
“We can do any site where children congregate, if the host will allow it to be an open site” — meaning anyone 18 or younger can be fed there, she said. “(For the summer program), they don’t have to be a BCS student.”
The Buncombe County Schools’ Child Nutrition Program collaborated with the Eblen Foundation, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, Buncombe County Parks, Greenways and Recreation and others to launch the program, Vaughn-Hensley told the board.
Government funds that enable free and reduced meals will pay for the programs, Vaughn-Hensley said, and increasing disadvantaged families’ participation should enable the program to pay for itself because of payment formulas.
“It can be a second-chance breakfast, or a grab-and-go breakfast for kids who aren’t hungry when they first walk in the building,” she said of the free meals at school this fall.
As a bonus for the summer feeding program, MANNA FoodBank is also working to secure funds to provide bagged meals that each child can take home for the weekend if they come for a free lunch the last day of the week.
Conflict over carrying capacity
The announcement was a bright spot in the budget session, as other meeting time was devoted to offering the first comprehensive analysis of Western North Carolina’s largest school system’s total capacity, which tallied the number of “open” desks that could be used by students if classrooms were fully utilized.
The latest analysis evaluated capacity at all Buncombe elementary schools in two ways.
One sought a theoretical maximum number of desks that could be occupied by students if rooms now devoted to computer labs and art classes were turned into traditional classrooms.
The second tried to capture the schools’ current “functional capacity” while preserving rooms now used for art, music, English as a Second Language, and similar activities.
Analyzed the first way, the number of “theoretically available,” open desks is 3,399, reported Tim Fierle, director of facilities and planning for the school system.
But the “functionally available” tally – the number of desks available with rooms being used as they are now – is a more modest 463.
That’s a far cry from the number of “empty desks” Buncombe School Board member Lisa Baldwin has said is available. Baldwin, who has been publicly critical of how the system is devoting its resources, mentioned the issue in an e-newsletter she circulated a few days in advance of the board’s work session.
Baldwin has repeatedly voiced her opposition to the construction of two new intermediate schools, the Joe P. Eblen and Charles T. Koontz schools, which were completed last year in the Roberson District in South Asheville.
“As of the current school year, BCS had 5,217 empty desks,” Baldwin’s newsletter reported, citing older figures from a less-detailed estimate found on the Buncombe County Schools website.
“This does not even include the space in over 40 modular classrooms,” she wrote. “We must maximize the efficiency of existing buildings while better balancing school enrollment.
“With our budget situation, the new normal means that we have to look at the flexibility of the modulars that we have,” Baldwin said, adding that she views constructing new brick-and-morter school buildings as “the very last option.”
Baldwin appeared later Tuesday on the WWNC talk radio program, The Pete Kaliner Show, continuing her call for fiscal austerity and school redistricting using the larger figure for “empty desks.”
But Fierle said at the work session that there are actually 93 portable classroom trailers in place throughout the school system, some dating back to the 1960s. Maintenance staff pointed out that they are inefficient and costly to heat, cool, and maintain, especially as they age.
And other school officials argue that it’s important that school space be flexible and available to be used for a variety of activities.
“It’s important to remember that schools aren’t built for a moment in time,” said Jan Blunt, communications director for the Buncombe County Schools. “They are built for a lifetime.
“Their enrollments rise and fall, often quite rapidly. The enrollment at T.C. Roberson High School, for example, has fluctuated by as much as 200 students in a given year. You don’t accommodate changes like that overnight.”
“I don’t think the system was wasting money when they built the new schools,” said Haw Creek Elementary School Principal Marcia Perry, who provided the analysis of her school’s building along with the other system principals to develop the new estimate of “empty desks.”
“You can’t be thinking just for today,” she said. “You have to be thinking about how the need is going to be down the road.”