Washougal School District seeks state support for free meals

Other WSD legislative priorities include investments in special education, student transportation

The Washougal School Board will seek state legislators’ support in 2023, to provide free breakfast and lunch to Washougal students.

The Washougal School District is close — but not quite close enough — to qualifying for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), part of the National School Lunch Program that permits eligible districts and schools to provide meal service to all students at no charge regardless of economic status.

To qualify for a CEP, a district, school or group of schools from the same district must have at least 40% of students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

A little more than 39% of Washougal students qualified for free and reduced-price meals during the 2021-22 school year, said Les Brown, the district’s director of communications and technology.

“Universal support for (free meals) would be helpful,” Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton said during a Nov. 8 school board workshop. “There is a mechanism in the state of Washington that allows a district to be fully compensated to provide meals for breakfast and lunch. Our district (doesn’t qualify), but we’re very close based on the percentage. Because we’re not quite there, we have children (in need) who do not qualify for free or reduced meals, so I would advocate strongly for that support as well.”

Board members said they believe chef-inspired, scratch-made meals help students feel welcome and nurtured in schools, and would like to “ensure that no student is hungry during the school day by providing universal free and nutritious school meals.”

“For students who rely on our meal programs due to food insecurity, meeting nutritional needs helps set (them) up to have a great school day, where they are focused on their learning instead of being hungry,” Templeton stated in a news release.

Washougal School Board members reviewed a set of priorities from the Washington State School Directors Association (WSSDA) and discussed the needs of the Washougal community during a workshop session on Tuesday, Nov. 8, and approved their final selections — special education and student transportation in addition to meal funding — for their 2023 legislative agenda during a meeting on Tuesday, Nov 22.

“We acknowledge that the legislature has been supportive in response to the persistent and pandemic-related needs of our students for which we are grateful,” board members Cory Chase, Angela Hancock, Jim Cooper, Chuck Carpenter and Sadie McKenzie said in a news release. “Additionally, we know that a focus on student academic acceleration and wellness must be a sustained and predictable commitment for the future. We are committed to providing the K-12 education that our students, families and communities need and are relying on our legislators to support this goal.”

Other priorities include investments in special education, student transportation

The district adopted its other top two priorities from WSSDA’s list, which was released in late 2022.

Regarding special education, district leaders will ask legislators to fully invest in mandatory services for eligible students; expand access to inclusionary practices; remove the “artificial” cap that limits state special education funding to 13.5% of a school district’s student population, regardless of how many students qualify; and recognize that costs vary for every district based on the “uniqueness of each student and community.”

“With board support, our district has focused on improving outcomes for students served through special education, and has greatly increased the amount of time that students spend in the general education classroom, supported by staff who work to scaffold learning,” Templeton said. “While our district has made significant progress in closing the opportunity gap for students served in these programs, these additional services should be funded by the state, not (by) local tax dollars. The Washougal School District spends nearly $2 million beyond what the state provides in order to provide the services these students need to succeed.”

The board is also asking legislators to cover all costs related to student transportation, “which would benefit districts like ours that cover larger, more rural geographic areas,” according to the news release.

The board stated that recent legislative changes, higher fuel costs and increased costs associated with attracting and retaining staff have “pushed our costs far beyond what the state allocates to get students to and from school safely.”

The board plans to continue its advocacy by participating in the “Day on the Hill” conference in February with state legislators in Olympia. The conference is sponsored by WSSDA and other state associations, including the Washington Association of School Administrators and the Washington Association of School Business Officials.

“Basically, the bottom line is that we have a great many needs in our schools, and the legislature needs to provide the funding to meet those needs,” Carpenter, the board’s legislative representative, said during the Nov. 8 workshop. “That’s our priority.”