BARNEGAT – A quick grab-and-go breakfast or lunch could soon be an option in place of cafeteria fare at the local high school – with the added bonus of special needs students gaining valuable work experience.
However, a recent Board of Education meeting suggests the idea could be scrapped – with no explanation from the four members who aren’t in favor.
The school district wants to use the surplus from its food services account to open a bistro in the rear of the Barnegat Township High School’s media center. No local property taxes would be used for the project estimated at $340,000.
The Barnegat Township School District banked over $600,000 in surplus related to its Food Services Fund as of its last available audit on June 30, 2021. Officials submit the excess has further increased and anticipate auditors will again urge the district to find a suitable means of spending the money.
Amid the pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provided public schools nationwide with free meals without requiring proof of need. The concept not only focused on ensuring kids didn’t go hungry but would also otherwise stimulate the economy.
School Business Administrator Stephen Brennan said that Barnegat is among many school districts that experienced a surplus resulting from the USDA funding during the pandemic.
“The food services account operates like a regular business account and is separate from our normal business account,” Brennan said. “Its objective is to break even and not make any money. The idea isn’t to make a profit from the kids eating lunch.”
Government regulations require that school districts only apply any surplus money in their food services accounts towards food or improvements to their food services operations. Therefore, it’s not feasible to use the funds for other programs or to hire teachers or paraprofessionals.
Superintendent Dr. Brian Latwis said the bistro would provide ninth to twelfth-grade students with intellectual and developmental disabilities a chance to learn life skills.
“It’s not like they can work for Chartwells (the district’s dining services vendor),” said Latwis. “Similar to our CLAWS store, these students will be working with something that’s appropriate and can manage and utilize.”
The CLAWMART store located in the Barnegat cafeteria acts as a transition program for Barnegat special needs students aged 18-21. The acronym stands for Career, Learning, Awareness, Workplace Skills and represents a partnership with an outside vendor to create and sell custom apparel.
The Barnegat Board of Education has the final say on approval of the bistro project, which could fail without a supermajority. Board President Sean O’Brien introduced the concept at the most recent meeting.
“Students will have a coffee-type shop bistro to foster socialization, quiet work, and student wellness,” O’Brien said. “The district is always looking for a way to draw kids into the school so that they can continue to learn and give them incentives to be here.
“Allowing them time and a place to collaborate with their friends is a great opportunity to continue expanding our educational opportunities,” continued O’Brien. “Most offices have a breakroom with a coffeepot; colleges all have public areas where people can get together and collaborate. That’s what we’re trying to foster here.”
Latwis pointed out in an interview after the board meeting that plans are to locate the bistro in the area dedicated to a late teacher and referred to as the Mike Bruno Collaborative Center. The superintendent said that high-top tables set up in the area would encourage people to collaborate and would be a perfect spot to continue to honor Mr. Bruno’s memory.
“It would also be the perfect opportunity for the kids with the biggest challenges to learn new skills,” continued Latwis.
Board members faced with the first vote on the High School Bistro narrowly approved a motion appointing Spiezle Architects to develop and support its concept design. Board members Sandra Churney, Carol Geene, Scott Sarno, and Lauren Washburn offered no explanation for their vote against moving the project further. All four also ignored two subsequent written requests for comment by this newspaper.
Sarno suggested during the vote that approval of the architects required six votes rather than the five offered by the balance of the board.
“The right to go out to bid was in that proposal,” Sarno said. “In order to go out to bid, you need two thirds of the vote.”
Board attorney Martin Buckley said the award to the architect was for the creation of specifications and needed just five votes to pass. A two-thirds majority or six votes would be necessary for approval of a supplemental motion to allow the project to go out to bid.
Barnegat High School sophomore Daniel Hoffman said he became upset when he learned of the possibility that the bistro could be nixed from future plans.
“I think it’s frustrating that our leaders who ran on building up our students as future leaders have decided to betray that promise,” Daniel shared. “This bistro offers so much to us – it enriches our special education curriculum and increases student/faculty morale.”
Daniel said he plans to start a petition among students in favor of the bistro and will present it at the next board meeting.