School lunches in the Payson Unified School District will increase by 25 cents this school year, reflecting rising costs and an ongoing food service deficit that plagues the district.
The school district board at a recent meeting approved the increase and talked about how to boost the number of students eating in the cafeteria -- including the possibility of closing the campus.
Sodexo's General Manager for Food Service Bill Helmintoller outlined his fiscal plan for the upcoming school year, noting "that's my break-even budget."
The district lost roughly $130,000 last year by providing students with meals. Sodexo, the food company the district contracts with, lost $18,000.
Districts across the nation --ven those previously reporting profits -- are now slipping into debt, Helmintoller said. He blamed rising food prices and said the cost of milk alone rose five times last year.
He said some food companies no longer consider doing business in districts with fewer than 5,000 students.
General costs increased 11 percent last year, resulting in an extra $72,000 in expenses. Labor costs rose a comparatively small 4 percent, to cost an extra $16,000.
The 25-cent increase, while expected to raise $25,000, is still not enough to cover losses. A $1 hamburger will now cost $1.25.
"That's still a good deal," Helmintoller said.
Transitions expected to help increase revenue include the move from Styrofoam to plastic baskets to hold food and reducing the number of elementary entrees from five to three to speed lunch lines. The measures are expected to save a combined $20,000.
The district has paid off a computer system, meant to adequately track sales, for which Sodexo fronted the district money. Though the majority of the $35,000 Sodexo loaned to the school paid for the computer, some of the funds paid for equipment like a salad bar.
"The asset is ours; we own it," district Business Manager Bobette Tomerlin told the school board on Monday. She said the increased technology was necessary to track sales, including the number of subsidized meals, which the district must report to the government.
The absence of a line item budget spurred board member Mike Horton to request one prior to the board's vote to continue Sodexo's contract.
"It would be like telling PinnacleOne, ‘Go build a school,' but not having a budget," he said, referring to the construction company managing the district's projects.
The board later stipulated that Sodexo submit monthly financial reports. Helmintoller said he'd complete one for August.
Half of Payson's students choose to forgo cafeteria food, a fact Helmintoller said he urgently wants to change.
"We're going to make it irresistible for students to eat in the cafeteria," he told the board.
The discussion eventually wandered to the district's open campus policy. Some school board members wondered if they shouldn't close the campus to create more cafeteria revenue.
"If that means close the campus this year, let's do it," said board member Charles Brown.
Board member Don Engler was dismayed by that solution. "I don't think you should close a campus," he said, "to supplement a private industry."
Horton replied, "I don't look at it as subsidizing Sodexo." He noted the district is also losing money.
Fellow board member Rory Huff asked Helmintoller what the district could do to ensure Sodexo continues to want its business.
"I'm here to stay," Helmintoller told the board. "It's very important to us that students have a nutritious meal, and I'm sure it is to you, too."
Engler said, "If it's good quality stuff that kids are going to like, then they're going to come. And that's the bottom line."
Tomlerlin said the district would benefit from any profits made from food.
Board member Viki Holmes noted that any discussion of a closed campus was a separate issue from raising cafeteria food profits.