Last updated: April 19. 2014 1:05PM - 1902 Views
By Joe Healey jhealey@civitasmedia.com

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After another spirited debate, the Pittston Area School Board voted April 15 at its regular monthly meeting to keep in place a controversial school lunch policy for students with negative balances in their lunch accounts.

Currently, if for any reason students do not have lunch money in their account, they are given a lunch and the cost is added to their account.

Under the “Negative School Lunch Balance Policy” passed last month, a student who hasn’t paid for three or more lunches will be given an alternative lunch, which includes the choice of a ham-and-cheese sandwich, a cheese sandwich or a “sunbutter” and jelly sandwich and a fruit, a vegetable and milk. Sunbutter is a peanut-free peanut butter substitute. Those children will not be allowed to purchase ala carte menu items, such as PowerAde, cookies or chips.

Superintendent Michael Garzella said the $60,000 in unpaid student lunches has gone down to $35,000 since two letters were sent to students’ homes in the past few weeks.

He said the first letter notified parents of the balance and threatened to take them to the district judge for payment. The second letter informed parents of ways to add money to their child’s lunch account through the district’s website. The deadline to send overdue accounts to the district judge was Tuesday.

Garzella said the policy hasn’t been enforced yet, but will start immediately because the deadline the administration set has passed.

“We wanted to give the parents a chance first,” Garzella said.

District Principal Kevin Booth formulated the policy. He told the board he analyzed 20-25 other districts’ policies, some much more strict. He said one district even denies children a lunch. He has stressed no child will be denied a meal at Pittston Area.

Board member Joe Kelly led the charge to end the policy, but did not have enough votes. He was supported by Rich Gorzkowski and Charlie Sciandra.

“We voted on a policy but didn’t enforce it,” he said. “I’m glad we got $25,000 … but you’re going to have to start enforcing the policy at some time. We’ve made progress and I don’t believe to start enforcing the policy now, at the end of the year.”

He said he voted no because he’s against segregating children and possible bullying and self-esteem issues.

Board President Tony Guariglia said nobody wants to hurt a child and no child is being hurt.

“It’s outlandish to hear that you’re voting for a policy that is hurting children,” he said. “Our superintendent and our district principal brought us this policy and they feel it’s best.”

Garzella said he doesn’t have an easy answer.

“Nobody wants to put a spotlight on a child,” Garzella said. “It’s a difficult issue because bills keep piling up and a lot of other schools have alternative meal policies. I don’t have an easy answer.”

In other business:

• The board voted to ask the Albert B. Melone Co. to negotiate a new one- to three-year contract with the district. Board member Marty Quinn said the district shouldn’t change financial consultants in the middle of teacher contract negotiations. Melone’s current contract expires soon. The firm will have two weeks to respond.

• The board agreed to allow a hearing regarding a request for tax assistance from Interstate Distribution Center to develop the former Techneglas property. Owner are seeking to be part of the Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance Act, which means that while property taxes are paid by the owners on the land value, the building and any improvements will be exempt from taxes for 10 years.

IDC hopes to invest $54 million to raze the existing facility which includes massive concrete silos that no longer serve a purpose and construct an industrial warehouse distribution center.

A public hearing is required before the board considers the request. All three taxing bodies hope to hold one hearing together.

• The board hired NovaCare for the district’s athletic training. A move to use Physical Therapy Associated of Northeast Pennsylvania did not pass.

• If you’re an administrator looking at retirement before the 2014-1015 commencement, the cash from a salary freeze in 2012-2013 will be included in the retirement package.

• The board unanimously hired Megan Moran as a part-time cleaning employee.

• The board hired Tess Toole as a cafeteria monitor. Kent Bratlee and Kelly abstained.

• The board unanimously hired Peggy Chernouskas and Colleen McAndrew as answering service operators. They will split the job and the compensation.

• The board rejected an offer from Northeast Revenue Services to purchase two properties for $500 each from the Luzerne County Repository. Approval is needed from all three taxing bodies, the district, municipality and county. The properties were 93 Main St., Duryea and a property at South Highland Drive in Pittston Township.

• The board passed a resolution to let state and federal officials know its opposition to federal and state cuts in medical assistance reimbursements for students with disabilities.

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