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Growing meal debt has Garfield Re-2 School District hungry for solutions

Student meal debt has accumulated to nearly $25,000 since the Garfield Re-2 School District 2022 calendar year began in August, a district official reported last week.

Garfield Re-2 Director of Nutrition Services Mary McPhee told the school board Oct. 26 that the significant dip was expected after the federal government had granted the COVID-era universal free meals over the past two years.

That option officially ended this school year.

“I know this is a debt that none of us want to have and are nervous it will never get paid,” McPhee said. “But every school district has the same problem.”

Numbers provided by Roaring Fork School District Public Information Officer Kelsy Been, show their district currently has $40,000 in meal debt.

On the other side of the county, Garfield 16 School District currently does not have any meal debt. A big reason why is because it qualifies for Provision 2 meal programs through the United States Department of Agriculture. This service solely offers free breakfast and lunch to districts with 75% or more of students falling in low-income categories.

But McPhee said that the Garfield Re-2 district’s meal debt fluctuates constantly, and there’s a decent chance that the district could see that number level off as the year progresses.

The transition back to paid meals — this includes lunch and breakfast — meant families that needed it were encouraged to apply for free-and-reduced meal services at the beginning of the school year. About 36% of the Garfield Re-2 student body right now participates in this service, McPhee’s data shows.

But there is still a significant number of families who have yet to apply for free-and-reduced meal services — an option that is still available no matter what time of year. McPhee said 51 Re-2 students currently owe more than $100; 106 owe between $50-$99; 366 owe between $10-$49; and another 499 owe less than $10.

The district serves 8,000 meals a day.

Kitchen manager Pam Harris helps a kid enter his number during the lunch hour at Graham Mesa Elementary School in Rifle on Monday.
Chelsea Self/Citizen Telegram

At no point does a student not get a regular hot meal if they’re unable to pay, nor are any students penalized academically when they still have an outstanding debt, McPhee said.

“I do think most families in our district are paying,” she said. “But the fact still remains that we have a meal debt currently of $24,578.76.”

Rising meal debt like this in the fall semester isn’t uncommon to the Re-2 district, however. Pre-pandemic year 2019 saw the district incur more than $19,000 in meal debt. But that debt was washed out by private donations and grants.

LOOKING AT LEGISLATION

Many school districts across the state are right now crossing their fingers Proposal FF on the statewide ballot passes. Voters on Nov. 8 will be asked to support limiting state income tax deductions for the wealthiest 5% of Coloradans. Revenue accumulated for this effort will help support universal free meals for all school districts and, if it does pass, will go in effect for the 2023-24 school year.

Until then, the Garfield Re-2 district is trying to curtail any outstanding payments from further growth.

“I think it’s great what we’re doing,” school board member Jason Shoup said. “But I happen to be one of the guys on the nervous side. So when we’re looking at $24,000 in debt, if it continues to occur like that, by the end of the school year we’re at $108,000 worth of debt.”

McPhee offered some ideas that can right now perhaps ease the issue. One would be to turn parents over to a collections agency.

Another would involve qualifying for a state program that offers free vegetables and fruits all school year. The only caveat to this option is that a school district has to have at least 50% of students receiving free or reduced meals.

School board members also responded by saying they could bolster the ways they get parents to apply for free-and-reduced services. This could mean sending out more fliers and notifications.

Though the board requested that it be provided monthly updates highlighting where the debt stands, it is likely the district will fully revisit its meal debt in January to see if it needs to take further action.

“I think, for right now, we feed all the kids,” McPhee said. “I don’t ever want to pull a tray. I don’t ever want to give a cheese sandwich.”

More information on free and reduced meals
  • According to the district, eligibility for free and reduced meals is income dependent. Visit https://www.garfieldre2.net/our_district/food_nutrition/free_and_reduced_lunch_info for more information.
  • Applications cannot be done online or by phone. An official paper application must be obtained, filled out by hand and returned to the district. Contact Free and Reduced Coordinator Shari Edwards at 970-665-7604 for more information.

Proposed legislation would promote mental health crisis services for students

Megan Baker of Mind Springs talks about crisis and suicide prevention during the Aspen Together mental health panel on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, inside the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen. Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times.

State lawmakers will consider a bill this week that aims to promote mental health crisis services in public schools by requiring hotline information on student IDs and offering outreach materials and services to schools.

The legislation (dubbed “Promoting Crisis Services in Schools,” number HB 22-1052) was introduced to the Colorado House of Representatives on Jan. 13 and assigned to Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services, where it’s due for a hearing on Tuesday, according to a history and schedule published on the Colorado General Assembly website.

The effort would add one more tool in the toolbox that local mental health agencies in the Roaring Fork Valley have long emphasized as a multifaceted approach to resources, services and support for people who are struggling.

“Definitely, it’s been a topic of conversation, especially again with the suicide that we had in the Aspen School District this year. … I think that this concept to me is us trying to figure out how to give lifelines to our youth who are struggling, and right now there’s so much going on in our world that I think it’s more important than ever,” said Kayla Bailey, the outpatient program director for Mind Springs’ Aspen location.

Colorado Crisis Services is the statewide agency whose phone number, website and text line would appear on student IDs if the bill makes its way to become a law. The organization also would be responsible for notifying schools that it can provide outreach materials that explain what services are available and how people can access those services; the bill language includes “the possibility of peer-to-peer counseling as part of the offered services.”

The bill could still link callers to local services because Mind Springs Health is contracted under Colorado Crisis Services for on-the-ground support for mobile crisis services and Mind Springs also holds the contract for crisis services in Pitkin County, according to Bailey.

That means people in Pitkin County who call the Colorado Crisis Services line might be connected to local Mind Springs clinicians on the mobile crisis team as needed, according to Bailey.

Mind Springs also holds the contract for school-based services in Pitkin County, and the crisis number is printed on business cards that MInd Springs hands out to students and families, Bailey said.

Putting crisis services information on student IDs won’t be a singular solution or a “fix-all” to the mental health challenges students are facing right now, but it could help by way of visibility, Bailey said.

“Overall, I think the more lifelines we can give them that may pop into their brain and these moments of crisis or hopelessness, or whatever they may be experiencing, the better off they’re going to be,” she said.

Michelle Muething, the executive director of the Aspen Hope Center, likewise sees the merit in more visibility for crisis services.

“I think any bit of resource is as good as people that are going to use it, right, or how they’re going to find it,” she said.

Printing resources on student IDs is one way to do it, Muething supposed; she also thinks that setting up pop-up reminders of crisis services information on school computers would be a different and helpful way to get the word out.

Aspen Hope Center also provides crisis services (plus education and prevention work) locally, but that number wouldn’t be printed on student IDs under the new legislation that specifies the state helpline as the go-to resource.

Muething said she would advocate to include Aspen Hope Center information in the outreach effort as well as state resources here in the Roaring Fork Valley, where the agency offers localized, boots-on-the-ground knowledge and experience. But she said she also recognizes the value of “standardization” in a statewide initiative like the one proposed in the bill, especially for places that might not have the same kinds of support networks and established agencies that the Roaring Fork Valley has.

“I very much lobby for local resources, but in the same token, when I go to other communities and other counties in the state, I realize that they don’t have the same thing our valley has with the Hope Center. … I do understand both sides,” she said.

Local Crisis Hotlines

Colorado Crisis services

• Call: 1-844-493-8255

• Text: TALK to 38255

• Online: ColoradoCrisisServices.org

Hope Center

• Call: 970-925-5858 (Aspen) or 970-945-3728 (Garfield County)

• Online: AspenHopeCenter.org

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

Cornerstone Christian School pastor says his students should be exempt from mask mandate

Pastor Jim Tarr of Cornerstone Christian Church and School speaks to the Eagle County commissioners on Tuesday.
Image from video recording

The pastor of Cornerstone Christian Church in the midvalley appealed to the Eagle County commissioners this week to let his school determine its own policy on masks for students based on its religious status.

Pastor Jim Tarr, who also is president of Cornerstone Christian School, said the parents of students at the school should determine whether masks should be required rather than the Eagle County Health Department.

“In the role of society, children are not created to be obedient to any other system of government except for the wishes of their parents,” Tarr said Tuesday during the public comment portion of the county commissioners’ meeting.

He said the school isn’t forbidding masks as a precaution against COVID-19. It is letting families choose.

“There are a lot of parents who say, ‘I do not want to cover my child’s face for eight hours a day, five days per week, 180 days per year,’” he told commissioners.

Cornerstone Christian School is located along Highway 82 between El Jebel and Basalt. It has about 100 students enrolled.

Tarr took his case directly to the commissioners after he was told by the Eagle County Health Department the private Christian school must adhere to an indoor mask mandate that was extended Sept. 16 for all schools in the county. Tarr said his school requested a religious exemption.

“We didn’t hear anything for about three weeks, and that happened when we were reported to the county health department,” Tarr said. “So in that process, we began to meet with them and just said, ‘How can we navigate through this?’”

The answer from the health department was to mask up. It’s an answer Tarr didn’t like, and it led to some turmoil at Cornerstone Christian School.

Principal Emily Lambert submitted her resignation after the school determined it would defy the public health order. A meeting that was called for parents after Lambert’s resignation became “very polarizing” with “anti-maskers versus maskers,” a parent said.

At least three families withdrew children from the school after the controversy erupted, according to one such parent.

As the standoff between the Christian school and county unfolded, county officials said it was their intent to meet with Tarr and explain why masks were required as a precaution against COVID-19. They said they weren’t interested in a heavy-handed enforcement action.

The county commissioners didn’t engage in conversation with Tarr. It is policy not to respond to public comment. County manager Jeff Shroll said Wednesday that no resolution had been reached between CCS and the county health department.

Tarr indicated Tuesday he took offense at the tone of emails he received from the county health department.

“I just want you to understand the nature of the emails that were coming to me,” he told the county commissioners. “They would include language such as this — that the Legislature of the state of Colorado has granted to the directors of health departments, that they can, if we’re not complicit with their mandates during a crisis, they can actually take control of what happens on our property, they can quarantine. It also included this idea: If we don’t align with a mandate, then the penalty can be a $5,000 fine and 18 months in jail.”

Tarr closed his 12-minute presentation by noting that former President Barack Obama was able to host a birthday party and not wear a mask during the pandemic without fear of getting fined or imprisoned.

“But you know what, what do I get from Eagle County? With all due respect, I get emails that are threatening, that carry threatening messages to me,” Tarr said. “And here’s the thing: If our policy ends up with me getting arrested or paying a $5,000 fine — trust me, I only have about one and a half $5,000 fines in me — then we’re done. But the truth is this: If the county (health department) comes against me, you have to understand it will be like shooting a fish in a barrel. I’m a little church and a little school, and I’m saying, please, let us live according to our faith.”

While Tarr didn’t make the case that the COVID-19 disease passes over students in religious schools, he did note that no classrooms had to be closed last year at CCS because of the pandemic.

scondon@aspentimes.com

Roaring Fork Schools announce internal staff moves for HR and family services posts

The Roaring Fork Schools have announced two new district staff changes this summer as the 2021-22 school year approaches.

Current Senior Project Manager Angie Davlyn has been selected as the new chief of human resources for the school district.

Also, Kelly Medina will be the new director of the Family Resource Center, the nonprofit arm of the school district that helps meet health, technical, financial and other needs for district families.

“Over the last five years in the Roaring Fork Schools, Angie has proven herself to be a trusted leader, a problem-solver, and systems-builder who is able to handle difficult situations with empathy and grace,” Superintendent Rob Stein said in a news release regarding Davlyn’s promotion.

Angie Davlyn

Davlyn joined the district in 2016 as the senior project manager and has over 15 years of experience as an educator, a background in communication, including a PhD in the field, and expertise in policy and district operations, according to the news release. She has also served as the chief administrative liaison to the school board and board elections official.

“I am excited to get to work on strategic HR initiatives such as enhancing staff engagement and belonging, developing comprehensive recruiting and retention plans, building innovative pipelines for future hiring, and focusing deeply on building a diverse staff,” Davlyn said in the release.

The district’s former director of human resources, Amy Littlejohn, took a new job in the valley over the summer, according to the release.

Medina was selected to take the helm as director of the Family Resource Center. Former director Anna Cole remains with the district as chief of student and family services, district spokesperson Kelsy Been said.

“We recently did some restructuring to improve support for students and families,” she said. “In recent years, we have taken on an increasing number of programs to support the whole student and engage families more deeply as partners.

The pandemic highlighted more than ever the need for integrated and coordinated health and mental health services and the importance of more seamless partnerships between district staff and partner organizations in those areas,“ Been said.

Stein said in the release of Medina’s promotion, “Kelly has supported the FRC through a number of transitions with her steady, reliable and strategic leadership. She is a strong advocate for children and families and brings a courageous equity lens to every partnership.”

Kelly Medina

Medina has been on the Family Services team for eight years serving as a family liaison, data specialist, and most recently as program coordinator. Medina attended Roaring Fork Schools and is a Yampah Mountain High School graduate.

“My intention as the director is to continue our work in building trusting relationships with parents, students, our community and schools with program fidelity, while upholding equitable standards,” Medina said in the release. “I am thankful for the previous Family Resource Center leaders before me in supporting my path and professional growth.”

In addition to the district’s nursing team, the Family Resource Center supports school-based health centers in all communities, plus school counselors and mental health providers, Been further explained of the Family Services expansion.

As a result, with Cole’s expanded oversight, the district is combining family services with oversight of some student services — health, mental health and early childhood education — into one department, Been said.

The district will also be looking to fill the senior project manager position left vacant by Davlyn’s move into the HR position, she said, but some additional restructuring is being discussed.

The HR and Family Resource Center positions were filled using the district’s established hiring process for principals and directors, Been said.

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or jstroud@postindependent.com.