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Flawed Process In Lyle

Editorial for June 26, 2003

No one doubts that the Lyle School District -- like so many school districts around the Northwest -- is having difficulty with its budget. Hard choices have to be made, and popular programs are going to be on the chopping block as schools look for a way out of budgetary problems. That's a given.

But the way the Lyle School Board handled its May 22 decision to kill the hot lunch program for middle school and high school students in the district was dreadful.

In fact, some of the sharpest criticisms leveled at the Lyle School Board during its meeting last week was that there was no public notification in advance of the vote to ax the lunches. That criticism is fully deserved. Although the fiscal basis for the move can be legitimately debated, there is no apparent justification for the way this decision was handled by the school board.

Here's what happened: On May 22, the Lyle School Board held its regular monthly meeting. Toward the end of the meeting, the board went into executive session to discuss what was described as a "personnel matter." Fifty minutes later, the board members came out and voted unanimously to do away with the hot lunch program, then adjourned. The "personnel" part of it turned out to be the firing of the school's cook and assistant cook, but that's getting things backwards. After all, the cooks were fired because the program was cut; the program wasn't cut because the cooks were no longer available.

The view here is that providing a lunch to the students -- including low-income students -- ought to be the last program to be dropped, not one of the first. Adequate nutrition is essential to effective learning, and low-income students deserve the same opportunities to learn as everyone else.

But if the case could be made that eliminating the free lunches is vital to the overall budgetary health of the school district, it's likely that the citizens of Lyle could handle the loss of this program.

That case was never made, however. On the contrary. The board members went into closed session and made a highly controversial decision with zero public input. Indeed, there was no awareness in the community that the board was contemplating this action.

Last Thursday, school board members explained to an unhappy crowd that board meetings are open to the public, and anyone could have come to the May 22 meeting. But that misrepresents the facts: There was no mention of the school lunch program on the May 22 agenda. No one could have known that the program was going to be discussed, let alone terminated. And even if citizens had attended, the issue was discussed behind closed doors.

The fact that so many parents and concerned citizens came to the June 19 school board meeting demonstrates the high level of interest around this topic. Some citizens offered ideas for ways to preserve the program -- including holding a levy vote this fall -- and those ideas need to be weighed by the board.

This is an issue in which the entire community deserves a chance to be heard before the decision is made, not after.

JB

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