DENVER — Providing free and reduced meals to students, and in turn, funding, is tied to figuring out the number of at-risk students there are in Colorado. However, this school year, the count was thrown off by tens of thousands of kids, meaning a difference of millions of dollars for school districts.
Beth Wallace, with Jefferson County Public Schools, said the district noticed a drop in the number of kids enrolled in the meal program. The district knew there were kids who needed it, so something was going on.
The issue was traced back to the pandemic. The Department of Agriculture opened up free and reduced school meals to everyone during COVID, which helped students at the time. Then, things adjusted.
"There are just students that we didn't reach through that process," Wallace said.
That process is one that requires paperwork. Some kids automatically qualify for free and reduced meals, while others turn in applications. The paperwork helps keep count of at-risk students. When the program opened up universally, a lot of families did not think they needed to turn in an application.
That led to an under-count of students across the state in fall 2021.
"Just under 45,000 students we think were not counted," said Jennifer Okes with the Colorado Department of Education. Since funding is allocated per student, it added up to $91.4 million less for districts across the state.
School districts, like Sheridan School District #2, saw nearly a 10% drop in applications for free and reduced lunch.
Their interim chief financial officer, Heather Lauria, wrote to 9NEWS:
"One thing that a lot of people aren't aware of is that the free and reduced application not only identifies our highly impacted population for the purposes of free or reduced meals, but it is also a way for the state and federal governments to calculate our funding for programs like Title. So, fewer applications submitted means fewer impacted students are identified, which negatively affects our federal funding as well as the state funding at risk factor, it's a bit of a double hit to our funding.
Prior to the pandemic, our free and reduced population was at 87%. This year it is at 78%, a reduction of almost 10%. Our population demographics have not changed, the only change is the reduction in number of applications being submitted.
As you can imagine, a reduction of 10% in Free/Reduced applications for a small school district like ours is very impactful to our funding. We have had to utilize grants and other sources of income to make up for this loss, and like I said, some of our Federal grants, such as Title, are also impacted by our Free and Reduced numbers so we have to find other funding mechanisms to cover that loss as well."
There's also more at stake.
Wallace said those who qualify for free and reduced meals also can have testing and school fees waived. She is worried some families are missing out on the help, especially this school year.
"Because of how the counts are done and carry over, we didn't feel the biggest impact until this year," she said.
Wallace also said they've seen students move out of their district for multiple reasons, including gentrification and cost of living in Jefferson County. Wallace said other families have opted for home schooling or living in different locations during the pandemic.
A bill, HB22-1176, would provide supplemental funding and close this funding gap. It has passed and is on its way to Governor Jared Polis (D) for a signature. Okes said that means districts could see money starting next month.
As for JeffCo Public Schools, they wanted to remind people they can still turn in the paperwork for free and reduced meals, and they will connect families to the other resources, as well.