Manassas to continue free student meals

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Despite a likely change in federal policy for next school year, Manassas City Public Schools are committing to offer free school meals to each of their nearly 8,000 students during the 2022-23 year.

The announcement means that for roughly 34% of those students whose families would not qualify for free or reduced status, meals will remain completely free of charge.

The Manassas school division has among the highest percentages of “economically disadvantaged” students in the state, and the number of students who qualify for free and reduced meal prices has grown significantly in recent decades. In 2005, about 23% of the division’s 6,575 students qualified for free or reduced meals. By the 2020-21 school year, 66% qualified.

“We will not be charging students for breakfast, lunch or dinner, for that matter,” Andy Hawkins, the school system’s finance and operations director, announced to the School Board last week. “We will not be charging any cost to students for any meal provided by MCPS throughout their day.”

Hawkins’ announcement comes as a U.S. Department of Agriculture waiver that provided for universally free school meals during the 2021-22 school year is set to expire before the new school year begins in September. Congress negotiated an extension to cover summer school meals but hasn’t taken any action on waivers for the 2022-23 year.

Last week, Prince William County Schools leaders said they were preparing to cover the full price of meals for students who qualify for free or reduced meal prices, but that students whose family income is above the federal threshold will need to pay for meals once again this fall.

At the same time, the overall federal reimbursement to school divisions for meals will actually decrease even as food prices continue to rise. Manassas will cover the free meals through its fiscal year 2023 budget.

Despite the continued free meals, the school division is having to make reductions elsewhere in the budget now that the state’s biennial budget has been finalized. Tax reductions delivered by Gov. Glenn Youngkin in his first budget will ultimately cost the division over $1.5 million in its 2023 spending plan, according to Hawkins.

To cover the losses, the division is eliminating eight currently vacant teaching positions, two requested tech specialists and one application engineer.

“While all reductions affect the quality of instruction to our students, we feel that these reductions are a good compromise,” Hawkins said, pointing to the series of pay increases and new instructional positions that the division’s new budget will still be able to fund.

The division will also have to foot part of the bill for the General Assembly’s and Youngkin’s promised teacher bonuses. While the new state budget gives teachers a pay increase as well as a $1,000 one-time bonus, it only does so for “standards of quality” positions that are state-funded. All Virginia school divisions employ more than just SOQ teachers. In Manassas, SOQ positions make up about 60% of the division’s teachers, meaning the state-funded portion of the pay raises essentially creates an unfunded mandate for school systems.

Hawkins said the division wasn’t going to give just one group of teachers a raise.

“All school divisions, and certainly MCPS, don’t believe or don’t operate that way. We cannot have two math teachers teaching side-by-side … one get a $1,000 bonus and the other one get zero,” he told the School Board. “They gave us 60% of the money, but … that left us a hole, a deficit that Manassas City had to provide of over half-a-million dollars that we were not expecting.”

The upcoming Manassas schools budget will still fund additional math support teachers at the division’s intermediate and middle schools, new reading and math support teachers at all elementary schools, a new counselor position at Metz Middle School and new gifted resource teachers at Dean and Round elementary schools. On average, staff will receive a 5% raise through a step increase and cost-of-living-adjustment, as well as the $1,000 bonus.

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