Schools feel pinch of food, fuel prices

SANDUSKY With the first day of school fast approaching, final preparations are underway for returnin
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

With the first day of school fast approaching, final preparations are underway for returning students.

Pencils need sharpened. Lesson plans need readied. Desks need cleaned.

And this year, budgets need enlarged.

Soaring food and gas prices are forcing school districts nationwide to increase their breakfast and lunch prices, and budget more for school bus fuel.

For the first time since 1999, Norwalk Schools is raising its breakfast and lunch prices -- by 25 cents across the board. Elementary lunches were $1.50, they'll be $1.75; middle school meals were $1.75, they're now $2; high school meals $2, now $2.25.

Even with the higher price tags, it won't be enough to cover ongoing food inflation.

"The 25 cents that we are increasing lunch prices for the students will not cover all of the increases we're going to be seeing," said Kenn France with Norwalk Schools.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said prices of products like bread, milk and cheese shot up 12 to 17 percent in the past year.

That explains why last year the cafeteria budget for the Norwalk school district was $894,575. The district plans to spend $995,000 this year.

Diesel fuel, too, is a budget killer.

Norwalk Schools spent $72,042 on fuel in the 2006-07 school year, according to France. Last year, the district spent $87,568. This year the district projects shelling out $112,800 -- a 29 percent increase.

Margaretta Schools is also bracing for higher energy and food costs.

Even after reducing the number of school bus routes from two to one last year, shaving 40,000 miles in road traveled, the district still saw an increase in transportation costs.

"We're anticipating another 30-35 percent increase in what we spent from last year because of the higher cost of fuel," said Jude Hammond, Margaretta Schools treasurer.

This puts a great deal of pressure on the district's budget, he said. The Margaretta school board is considering placing a tax rate increase proposal on the November ballot to keep up with flattening revenue and escalating costs. The board expects to discuss the matter at its 7 p.m. Monday meeting.

The district is also expected to offer fewer school trips to curb fuel expenses, Hammond said.

"We only have X number of resources available," he said. "One of the things we're looking at with transportation costs is the reduction of class trips. We've obviously gone to the bare minimum with our one-route system. It'll just eat into our bottom line, where we're already losing funds."

Meal rates are also going up this year by about 15 cents across the board, school officials said. Lunch rates also went up last year in Margaretta Schools.

At Sandusky Schools, it's no different.

At the district's board meeting on Monday, the price of school lunches was increased by 10 cents. Breakfast prices are holding steady.

The district is pushing the government commodity program to prevent food prices from swelling, said Kevin Robertson, Sandusky Schools treasurer.

"Part of what we're doing with the commodities is we're allowed to assign that (government provided) food to the vendor we're purchasing the ultimate product from," he said. "Say, for example, we can get the government commodity on the cheese and we'll send that to the people we buy the pizza from. They will give us a credit and we will buy that pizza cheaper than we would otherwise."

Only two weeks on the job, Robertson didn't have many specific numbers on consumption trends in the district available. But he generally knows what's coming.

"I know when (former treasurer Troy Bouts) did that budget, I know he built in there significant increases," anticipating skyrocketing gas prices, Robertson said.