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1/30/04 - Rusk County

School District Faces Possible Budget Dilemma

Parents in East Texas are speaking out about a school district's participation in a program required by state law. This year, more than 60 percent of the students at West Rusk ISD eat free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program. So state law requires the district to provide meals this summer as well. The question is: will the school district have to feed the kids this summer? And if so, how will the school pay for the program?

The district sent a letter to the state agency running the program, requesting a waiver for this summer.

"We don't have the funds to put the program in place this year," T.R. Mills, district superintendent, said.

The school district says its students are spread over more than 100 square miles in Rusk County, making it inefficient and costly to deliver meals or pick students up from their homes. The superintendent says the district would have to pay for cafeteria workers and transportation costs.

"We're going to have to pull the funds from somewhere else," Mills said. "And that would be from curriculum or instruction. And at this point, we just felt that that wouldn't be fair to the kids."

Some parents agree.

"Our children have enough problems in school without taking from them, especially their education, when it's so important," Michelle Trichel said.

Trichel has a son in first grade, who is not on the National School Lunch Program.

"Ultimately, I don't think that's the school's responsibility," Trichel said. "I feel like that's the parents' responsibility. And if they're not able, then there's a lot of programs that help families that can't feed their children."

But one man, who has two grandchildren in the school lunch program, believes the district should work to find funding to help kids from low-income families.

"I feel if a kid has a meal, it brightens his day, it gives him a purpose to come to school," Odis Johnson said.

Now, West Rusk ISD must simply wait for an answer from the state. If the district gets out of providing the lunch program this summer, it will still have to feed its students next summer, as long as more than 60 percent of students still qualify.

Julie Tam, reporting.

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