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New single-lunch periods at two Charles County public high schools take the blame for declining revenue in the food service budget.

Paul T. Balides, assistant superintendent of finance, business, administration and technology, said last week at a Charles County Board of Education meeting that what is driving the fund down is a decrease of sales, particularly at the secondary level.

Balides presented the board Oct. 11 with the results of an end-of-the-year audit performed by Clifton Gunderson LLP at the end of June.

Auditors with the company were on hand last week to report their findings and answer questions.

As a result of the audit, no significant budget variances were discovered and all schools ended the fiscal year with a cash balance.

Auditors noted that the operating budget at the end of the year had a surplus of $729,000.

Food services, which operates on a $10 million budget, however, had a net loss of $408,000.

The auditors concluded the loss was due to a new point of sale computer system and two high schools moving to a single lunch period.

School board member Jennifer S. Abell asked Balides if the loss in the lunch fund was due to high school food sales.

“Yeah, there is definitely a loss of sales,” Balides said.

In a later interview, Balides said that the point of sale system going into place was a planned expenditure.

A lot of the problem the school system is having with lunch sales, which accounted for $276,000 of the net loss, Balides said, were the lines students are waiting in, especially at the schools with a one-lunch schedule.

Balides said he and staff are currently visiting secondary schools and performing time and motion studies to get an idea of how lunch is handled and how efficiently the program works.

Abell suggested doing the same at the elementary level, as board members have received complaints from parents regarding students not being able to eat due to long lines.

In regards to the single-lunch shift, two high schools currently participate in having the entire school eat lunch at one time.

Balides said these schools together accounted for the $276,000 loss in sales.

He said staff was able to look at numbers of students who purchased lunches at the school before they went to the one-lunch schedule and after and the loss of sales was significant at both schools after the change.

At Henry E. Lackey High School, the hourlong lunch period is called Charger Time while at North Point High School, the lunch period is referred to as Nest Time.

Lackey has had a one-lunch schedule since 2009, when it switched from having four separate lunch periods.

During the one-lunch schedule, students can eat anywhere on campus except the media center and the lower level of the school. Students can't go outside except to the school’s interior courtyard.

During the lunch time, students can participate in scheduled clubs and activities, and seek assistance from teachers regarding their studies.

North Point began its one-hour program last year and follows a similar schedule.

Neighboring Calvert County has all four of its high schools on a one-lunch schedule.

Auditors last week suggested that maybe a cause for the decline in sales is due to students participating in the clubs and activities and opting to pack a lunch, so not to miss out on the activities by waiting in line.

Abell asked if there were a la carte items available and if schools were able to sell in other areas aside from the cafeteria.

Balides said there were a la carte options for students, particularly those at the one-hour schedule high schools.

School board Chairwoman Roberta S. Wise said in a later interview that it would be a good ida to look into selling items at kiosks in different areas of the schools with one-hour lunch schedules.

Abell said, a lot of times, maybe it’s not the lines or food availability but simply a choice on a family’s part not to eat school lunch.

She said having had four children in the school system at one time, if they were all to buy lunch every day, she would be budgeting more than $100 a month just for school lunches.

Balides said a decline in the food services’ budget’s revenue is “an interesting problem to fix” and that the school system is looking into innovative ways to try and come out of the decline.

Balides said he is working with school principals and staff and looking into individual school lunch processes.

The food service program has a fund balance, which absorbed the net loss, Balides said. The balance currently has $1.1 million to absorb any additional losses this year.