School officials in the Bigfork area are noticing a rise in the number of local families and children in need.
Schools had to submit the number of students signed up for the federal free and reduced price lunch program by the end of October to the Montana Office of Public Instruction, and both the Bigfork School District and Swan River School have seen a jump in the percentage of students taking advantage of the program.
Qualifications for the program vary on income and the size of the household, but a family of four must have an income of less than $28,665 a year to get free meals and less than $40,793 a year for meals at reduced prices. Families must submit forms to be reviewed by the district to enroll in the program.
This is the second year in a row that Bigfork has seen a significant rise in the percentage of students in the program.
“We’ve jumped again,” business manager Eda Taylor said.
Both the middle and high school saw about an 8 percent increase in the number of students in the program between this school year and last year’s count. The elementary school saw a smaller change of about 3.4 percent. Overall, 43.1 percent of students in the Bigfork School District are enrolled in the program. All of this makes the total increase from two years ago more than 15 percent at each school. These percentages will fluctuate as people continue to apply for the program, but the October count is what OPI will base finances for the district on for the next school year.
“The biggest thing I see from this is that we certainly have families who need this support,” Taylor said. “I certainly hope they are all stepping forward. Anything we can do to help the community is worth it.”
Across the Valley, Flathead County school districts are finding similar trends, Taylor said.
“Everyone is seeing the same thing,” she said.
The number of students in the program plays several roles in the finances of the school.
It impacts the federal reimbursement for school breakfasts and lunches. Food service manager Judy Kinyon submits reports to the state at the end of each month and receives different amounts of money based on those who eat free and reduced priced lunches and those who pay in full for their meals.
The biggest impact financially on the district is on Title I funds, which are based on the economic needs at the school projected from the percentage enrolled to receive free and reduced price lunches. This year’s numbers will mean a bigger Title I budget next year. Title 1 of the federal No Child Left Behind Act grants funds to help provide extra academic assistance for students.
“On the one hand, it means we’ve identified more students who need assistance,” Superintendent Cynthia Clary said of the increase. “Financially, it means increasing the benefits that come to Title I.”
Some grants, including for technology, are geared toward those with higher percentages of those on free and reduced lunch, so the increases could also make the district more eligible for other funding sources.
Prior to this year, Swan River School usually had between 20 and 30 students out of the about 150 enrolled in the school in the free and reduced lunch program, an amount that meant the school wasn’t considered to be in high need.
“Not having a high number made us look like we’re really well off,” Principal Peter Loyda said. “The low number in free and reduced showed us as a school that didn’t have needs.”
However, the number of students taking advantage of the program more than doubled this school year to total about 70 students.
“I looked at it and wondered, ‘Is that right?’ And it is,” Loyda said. “That’s huge... I’m pleased parents actually are using the program. If it helps them, why not take advantage of it?”
That increase should help the school out with some additional Title I funds for the next school year.
“Our Title I numbers are higher than ever, but we aren’t able to service them,” Loyda said.
The school had to cut back a bit in that area for this year based on budget constraints. It went from having one full-time and one half-time employee as well as a couple of others who were partial Title I workers to the full-time and a third-time employee. Those who used to partially help with Title were eliminated or had a position change.
Schools aren’t the only organizations affected by a rise in the percentage of students in need of assistance.
The LEAP after-school program is also impacted by the number of kids in the free and reduced price lunch program. Due to stipulations with its 21st Century Learning Center grant, LEAP is required to allow every student in the program to attend its services for free, said director Cathy Gaiser.
Three years ago, that meant about 16 percent of those in the program. Now it’s about 60 percent.
“It’s affected us tremendously,” Gaiser said. “You can just tell it is difficult for families and kids. People who have paid (for their kids to attend LEAP) for four years are now this year on free and reduced lunch.”
That puts LEAP in a funding bind as it does not get additional funding for having an increased percentage of students in the program. So, that means its organizers must find more and alternate funding sources, she said.
“It’s good because it forces us to keep serving the most needy kids,” Gaiser said. “Luckily at this point we’ve been able to survive.”
LEAP does, however, get a reimbursement based on the number of kids in the program for its after-school snack program, facilitated through the Bigfork School District. For those who are not enrolled in the free and reduced program, LEAP gets a reimbursement of 6 cents a day, but for those who are in the program, the amount ranges from 38 cents to 76 cents. Those higher reimbursements now allow LEAP to break even on snacks as of late.
Parents can still check to see if their children qualify and apply to the federal free and reduced price lunch program.
For more information call Swan River School at 837-4528 or the Bigfork School District at 837-7400. Bigfork also has the forms online on the “District Office” page at www.bigfork.k12.mt.us.