After scrambling to get enough families to turn in a missing piece of paperwork, school district officials say they will be able to continue participating in a program that provides kids at most of its schools free breakfast and lunch.

Enough parents turned in their child’s fair share form in recent weeks that the number of Del Norte County Unified School District students eligible for free and reduced lunches is approaching last year’s 67 percent figure, said Michael Hawkins, director of grants and community outreach.

However, district officials believe that as many as 70 percent of its students are eligible for free and reduced meals, according to Superintendent Jeff Harris.

Harris said the district will start encouraging families to fill out their fair share form and free and reduced lunch applications earlier next year and stress that their information will be confidential.

“I had families express to me that it was not the government’s job to help me feed my family so I’m not going to fill that out,” Harris said. “’I don’t want to give the government any of my personal information,’ and then we just have people who don’t trust institutions in general because of bad experiences. Because of the whole issue surrounding immigration, a lot of our Hispanic families who may not be documented were questioning filling those out because at that point they were providing information, again, to a government agency.”

According to last year’s figures, which is counted through the first month of the 2018-19 school year, 67 percent of the district’s students were eligible for free and reduced lunches, according to Jeff Napier, assistant superintendent of business. That percentage dropped to 61 percent after Oct. 1, 2018 because the district hadn’t received all the fair share forms or the free and reduced lunch applications, according to Napier.

According to Napier, this jeopardized the district’s continued participation in the Community Eligibility Provision program.

The drop in the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunches also jeopardized funding the district used for services to English language learners, foster and low-income students. According to Napier, the district stood to lose $395,000 in funding for the 2018-19 school year as a result.

Facing a significant loss of funding, the district took to social media and the radio to encourage parents to turn those forms in, according to Harris. District officials called families who had not returned the forms directly, sent out text messages as well as automated calls, Harris said.

“We did as much as we could, both targeted and whole site or whole district in order to get them to understand that we needed those back,” he said.

Harris said that although they didn’t need to fill out the full application, many parents misunderstood that they had to fill out the single-page fair share form. In addition to encouraging parents to fill out those forms earlier, assuring them that their information will be confidential, Harris said district officials will also tell parents about the connection between those forms and services to English language learners, low-income and foster students.

But, Harris said, there will probably always be a margin of error in the official number of students eligible for free and reduced lunches.

Hawkins said hundreds and hundreds of forms were coming into the district office during the last five days of the district’s efforts.

“We were pushing it everywhere, but besides that people were just talking about it,” he said. “People were taking a personal interest in going around and talking to their friends and potential classmates. It was more than the district making the effort, there was definitely community effort going on there.”

Under the Community Eligibility Program, the district is able to offer free breakfast and lunch to all its K-8 schools as well as Sunset High School. The program allows the district to serve meals at schools where 40 percent of the student population is eligible for free and reduced lunches. According to Deborah Kravitz, the district’s director of nutrition services, the number of students directly certified for free and reduced lunches through the CalFresh, CalWorks and MediCal programs drive the CEP percentage for the district.

As a result of its participation in the CEP program, the district served about 9,500 more lunches last month compared to October 2017, according to Kravitz.

At a school board meeting last month, Harris mentioned the possibility of bringing the CEP program to Del Norte High School. But on Friday, he said the ability to do so would be based on the level of participation in the school lunch program.

“The more meals we serve, the better our reimbursement from the state or the feds and the larger our reimbursement the more students who don’t qualify we can serve through the CEP,” Harris said. “At this point, we’re in break-even mode. If we have a lot more kids participate in the free breakfast and free lunch to the level, at that point we can open it up to the high school too and provide every high school student with a free meal.”

Harris noted Redwood School and Gasquet Mountain School don’t qualify for the CEP program. However, he said, Kravitz saw the potential to increase participation in the school lunch program to the level that the district would make enough money to offset the cost to feed students at those K8 schools.

“A lot of districts do it to make money, our school district did it to maximize the number of kids we could feed,” Harris said.

Meanwhile, on Thursday the school board authorized the district to send out a request for proposals for a search firm to seek out a new assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. According to Harris, the district’s current assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, Steve Godla, has indicated that he will retire this year.

Harris said potential candidates have expressed interest in the position, both internally and in adjacent counties.

“We have 10-15, maybe as many as 20, looking at the position and waiting to see what the position is, what we’re going to fly, looking at the scope of responsibilities that I think we need somebody to really work through vetting applicants and narrowing down the search to the most viable people,” Harris said.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .

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