In the final analysis, the Killeen school board likely did the right thing in voting to close the district’s high school campuses during lunch periods.
Given the issues of student safety and building security, the board’s 4-2 vote Tuesday was the right call.
However, the decision to rubber-stamp Superintendent John Craft’s recommendation — without a thorough review of the facts on the table — was questionable.
For several years, the district has had a serious challenge with the logistics of efficiently feeding 2,000 students at each of the four traditional high schools. All district campuses have just two 34-minute, lunch periods, with students at some campuses reportedly spending about half of their allotted lunch period standing in line at the cafeteria.
Even with the district’s new high school, Chaparral High, opening in August, enrollment projections show Harker Heights, Killeen and Shoemaker high schools with more than 2,050 students each and Ellison High with 1,950. Chaparral is projected to have 1,590 students in its inaugural year.
With closed campuses and just two lunch periods, all schools but Chaparral could potentially have about 1,000 students in the cafeteria at any given time.
Having to move that many teens through a lunch line in less than 20 minutes would be a major challenge.
But an even bigger challenge might be where to put them all once they’ve received their meals.
Both Harker Heights and Shoemaker’s cafeterias have only 593 seats. Ellison, Killeen and Chaparral are a bit better off, with nearly 800 seats each.
The district’s answer is to designate the lunch periods as “Power Hour,” in which students can take their food to classrooms or eat in the hallway with cafe-style seating.
But newly elected Trustee Brenda Adams, who is a former district principal, told the board on Tuesday that the Power Hour experiment, which started last year, isn’t working.
With all this in mind, recently elected Board Member Oliver Mintz — who generally favored the proposal to close the campuses — argued that perhaps the board should take a harder look at the numbers before taking a final vote.
However, Board Member JoAnn Purser responded, “I don’t need to see the numbers; he (Craft) will manage the numbers. I have faith in the team he’s put together. ... Our job is to make a policy decision, which is to close or open campus for lunch. That’s it.”
That’s the wrong answer.
Though Purser expressed her complete confidence in Craft, whom she described as “the ultimate executive manager of our school district,” she has an obligation and responsibility as an elected official to fully examine and review all policy proposals. To do any less is a disservice to her constituents.
Certainly, the district’s high school students are poorly served by a lunch policy that forces them into an overcrowded cafeteria, leaving them with little time to eat and searching for a place to sit.
But just as important is the stress placed on the district’s food service workers, who must accommodate the larger crowds that will result from the closed-campus policy.
Teachers and staffers will see an extra burden as well, as more students will be eating in classrooms, hallways and common areas — requiring extra supervision and reducing the time educators have to do their lesson planning or eat lunch themselves.
If high school students are expected to remain on campus to eat their lunches, the district should have readied a fully developed strategy for dealing with the additional stress on the school cafeterias, as well as the time crunch that would involve.
This is where the board must step in. This is where trustees should be expected to take a harder look at the numbers, as Mintz said.
In other words, while the overall move to closed campuses may be in the best interest of the district’s students, it’s the board’s job to ensure that the change is one that minimizes any negative impact the policy might cause.
That means ensuring students don’t have to spend their lunch period standing in line, that they will have a place to sit and that they don’t have to rush back to class with indigestion or a half-eaten lunch in the trash.
And with COVID cases spiking this week in Bell County, what contingency plans are in place to ensure students and staff can remain safe in a crowded lunchroom?
As any good administrator knows, the devil is in the details. And it’s our elected representatives’ obligation to ensure that all the details are worked out before a new policy moves forward.
Craft expected the school lunch topic to be an emotional one, which is why he introduced the subject two months before the start of the new school year. And indeed, Tuesday’s board discussion was a lively one.
But simply deferring to the administration’s judgment and rubber-stamping Craft’s recommendation was not the most responsible path for the board to take.
Neither was it acceptable for the board to agree to a closed-campus policy without knowing how the district planned to address the challenges that accompany it.
Ultimately, Craft was correct in his assessment that it was time to make the change. The superintendent cited car accidents, trespassing on private property and instances where students returned to campus under the influence.
It’s a little less clear whether Craft made the right call in proposing an exception for seniors who meet their “College, Career, and Military Readiness criteria,” with their parents’ approval.
That exception for CCMR students seems to be drawing an arbitrary line at what constitutes responsible behavior, as well as rewarding a military commitment before that service plays out.
Still, the overall policy makes good sense — especially in light of the recent spate of school violence nationwide, including here in Texas.
It’s also worth noting that none of the surrounding school districts offer open-campus lunch to their high school students, making Killeen ISD an anomaly, as Craft put it.
Nevertheless, Mintz and board Vice President Susan Jones deserve kudos for voting against the proposal, for the purpose of studying it further.
Residents expect their board members, council members and county commissioners to do more than automatically go along with the recommendations of top administrators and paid staff.
While it’s safe to say that most of those recommendations are well thought-out and researched, our elected representatives must serve as a sounding board for those proposals — and the only way to do so is to be well informed beforehand.
Our district’s students, teachers and support staff deserve a campus lunch policy that not only enhances safety and security, but also one that promotes an efficient and generally pleasant lunchtime experience for all involved.
Unfortunately, the one KISD’s board approved Tuesday is only half-baked.