Lincoln Co. families facing school meal costs, new levy

·4 min read

Aug. 19—Families and individuals dealing with the costs of inflation in Lincoln County will have to dig a little deeper.

The reasons are twofold. One is because a federal program that provided free meals for students over the last two years has ended and also because the cost of diesel fuel has increased substantially.

According to information from the Libby School District, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is not offering free meals this year and it has directed districts to return to the pricing model that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The free meals for all students ended with the 2021-22 school year, but programs for free and reduced meals still exist," Libby Schools Superintendent Ron Goodman said.

The purpose of the National School Nutrition Programs is to ensure school children are receiving nutritious meals. The federal government calculates the amount of funding they will reimburse for every breakfast and lunch served.

Because the programs are designed for students, revenue from the National School Breakfast and Lunch Program cannot be used for adult meals.

The Libby School Board Trustees approved the following full-priced meal charges for the 2022-23 school year:

For students, breakfast will cost $2.20 and lunch will be $3.50. Ala carte items will increase $.50 per item.

For adults, breakfast will cost $2.50 and lunch will be $4.75.

For free and reduced meals, which about 52 percent of students in Libby Public Schools qualify for, the cost for reduced meals is the same at $.30 for breakfast and $.40 for lunch. The single milk price also remains the same at $.40.

Here are some of eligibility guidelines for free and reduced-price meals:

All children in households receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) are eligible for free meals;

Foster children that are under the legal responsibility of a foster care agency or court;

Children participating in their school's Head Start program are eligible for free meals;

Children who meet the definition of homeless, runaway or migrant;

Children may receive free or reduced-price meals if the household income is within federal income limits.

For example, children within a family of four with a yearly income of $51,338, would be eligible.

For complete information, go to libbyschools.org and select the Back-to-School Information section on the home page or call the school superintendent's office at 293-8811.

The other cost increase for the school district and its taxpayers is a major one as the transportation budget increased about $100,000 due to the increase in cost of diesel fuel.

The transportation budget for the last school year was about $900,000, but this year, it's a little more than $1 million.

"This only provides for bussing a student from home to school and from school to home. It doesn't include the costs of transportation for sports or other activities," Goodman said.

That increase allowed the school district to use a permissive levy to help pay for those increased costs. A permissive levy is a limited non-voted levy schools can impose to support budgets in the areas of tuition, adult education, building reserve, transportation and bus depreciation reserve, as long as they notify the public.

"According to Montana Law, we have to pay for kids to get to and from school," Goodman said.

According to Libby School District Clerk Leslie Forster, its three big cost increases are the result of the rise of diesel fuel prices, safety mandates and the transportation contract with Harlow's School Bus Service.

Forster said taxpayers will see an increase on their next bill in November.

She did point out that taxpayers did get a decrease in property taxes in 2021 when a five-year building reserve levy that was approved by voters in 2016 ended.

The safety measures allow for bigger stop sign arms on school buses that extend into the opposite lane of traffic and for additional flashing lights to alert other motorists that they must stop.

Gov. Greg Gianforte signed both bills in 2021 to improve safety for students getting on and off buses. Rep. Neil Durham, R-Eureka, was the sponsor of the bill.

The law was mainly inspired by the story of Jordan Hubble, a little girl who was struck by a vehicle while getting off a school bus on U.S. 93 near Olney in November 2019.