There’s nothing like a barrage of spiteful emails, local protests, a death threat or two and an overflow crowd at a school board meeting to get a school board to see the error of its ways.
Faced with that scenario, the Waukesha school board last week did the prudent thing — it caved to demands of protesters and reversed its previous vote earlier this summer.
What was remarkable is that the fiery issue wasn’t over a mask mandate or critical race theory instruction, a student dress code or any of number of things that often rile up school districts.
It was about participation in a federal free meals program.
In June, the school board decided 9-0 to stop the district’s participation in The Seamless Summer Option, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that offered free meals to all students — a program designed to be more Covid-safe by eliminating the need to collect payments and more easily serve meals.
At the time, board members said it was time to return to pre-pandemic practices and revert to the National School Lunch Program, which allows students from low-income families to apply for free or reduced-price meals. But not students whose families could afford to pay for lunches.
In a May committee meeting, school board member Karin Rajnicek supported going to the old lunch program and said, “But when you make a blanket everything-is-free for everyone that means there are people out there who do not have kids and they are paying for my kids to eat. I feel like this is a big problem and it’s really easy to get sucked into and to become spoiled and then to just think that it is not my problem anymore, it’s everyone else’s problem to feed my children,” according to a McIver Institute review of meeting video.
“Spoiled?” Uh, oh.
The Washington Post carried a story about the June vote under the headline: “A school district opted out of a free meals program, saying students could ‘become spoiled.’ ”
No, it didn’t have a photo of board member Rajnicek ripping a milk carton out of the hands of a student, but it might as well have.
Social media and the Twitter universe blew up with critical and sometimes vile comments from across the country. According to news reports, some board members were threatened and had their addresses and personal information posted on social media. Community members and the Alliance for Education in Waukesha held a rally with signs saying, “When we aren’t hungry, we learn better.”
School board members were bombarded with calls and texts.
Small wonder then that last week at what was described as “an incendiary meeting with two lively overflow rooms” in a Milwaukee newspaper, the board reversed its June decision and voted 5-4 to stay with the free lunch for everyone program.
Waukesha School Superintendent James Sebert asked for the reconsideration saying the program would help families “experiencing situational poverty due to the pandemic.” Board member Greg Deets said, “I made the earlier vote without really looking at all the implications and I wasn’t really informed and I apologize for that. The truth is that many of our students are hungry throughout the school day and we have the ability to do something about that.”
Some board members said they would not be cowed by “intimidation and threats.” Board member Anthony Zenobia said, “If it’s food and free lunch today, it will be forced masking, forced whatever-we-want-to-do in schools because the mob will have the power to tell us what to do.” Another board member, Kelly Piacsek, said the issue wasn’t about food anymore, but about national influences on local school boards. “This is how we got CRT (critical race theory) and filthy books and vaccine and mask mandates, all this stuff,” she told the board.
For now, the issue is settled in Waukesha: There is such a thing as a free lunch.
The country has been awash in federal and state money — everything from individual stimulus checks and expanded unemployment compensation to road building, business assistance, grants to cities and schools and beyond. Much of that was sorely needed. But as vaccinations rise and the threat of hospitalization or deaths declines here in the Upper Midwest, we should look to return to normal and rein in the pandemic gravy-train spending.
A good place to start would have been with ending free lunches for parents who can afford to pay their student’s way. The Waukesha School Board had it right in June when it voted 9-0 to supply lunches only to low-income students. Those who can afford to pay, should. We need to get back to that.