Interim Superintendent Doug Howell said the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District plans to move forward and the window is now shut for fired school lunch lady Dalene Bowden to return to her job.
Bowden was dismissed from her position at Irving Middle School last month after she gave a free lunch to a hungry student.
The district offered to rehire Bowden shortly before Christmas when the story about her firing was covered by national and international news outlets, and the district received a barrage of criticism on social media.
On Monday, District 25 officials offered Bowden a position in the central kitchen and gave her until noon to respond. Bowden said Tuesday that she did not contact the district and does not intend to return to work.
“There was no response to our offer of continued employment,” Howell said.
Howell said the new position offered to Bowden had the same working hours and salary as her job as a lunch lady at Irving.
But Bowden said interacting with students was the reason she loved her job.
“I told (the district) that I would come back if I could go back to my position at Irving and they said that was not on the table,” Bowden said. “The job in the central kitchen was the only position being offered.”
During a press conference Tuesday, Howell said the position in the central kitchen was offered because Bowden had expressed concern about retaliation if she returned to her former position.
District: ‘Children do not go hungry’
Howell said he was surprised by the public’s response to Bowden’s dismissal and he worked to suppress his emotion during Tuesday’s press conference.
“The way this situation was portrayed in the media has sadly drawn negative attention to Irving Middle School, to our district and to our community,” Howell said. “Therefore, we would like to address the process that is in place, and has been in place for over a year, to ensure children do not go hungry during the school day.”
Students can charge up to $11 on lunch accounts. Once they reach that limit, Howell said attempts are made to resolve the matter before denying lunch to any child.
Automated phone calls, emails or text messages are sent to parents on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and they are notified by food-service workers during business hours.
Each day an email is sent to individual schools alerting them to students who are over the $11 limit and children are contacted prior to lunch hour.
Howell said if children get to the end of the line and can’t pay for their lunch, their tray is discreetly put aside and they are provided a healthy snack and drink.
“This process works, and it teaches children honesty and personal responsibility,” Howell said.
The Education Foundation and various parent organizations provide snacks to make sure children do not go hungry during the school day. That’s done if parents are unable to cover the negative balance and the child does not bring a lunch to school.
Bowden said that she had never received a formal reprimand during her three-year tenure with the district, but did once receive a verbal warning for giving a student a free cookie.
Howell said the district’s disciplinary policy is not progressive. But typically workers are not fired for a first offense.
He said the district conducts background checks on all food service workers and volunteers.
Half of district’s students get meal assistance
Approximately 50 percent of students enrolled in District 25 are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. And Howell said there is no distinction between a student who self-pays and one who receives assistance.
“They simply type in their school lunch account code to receive school meals,” Howell said.
Nearly 16 million children in the United States live in households that have trouble providing enough nutritious food.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 added a new option for schools in high-poverty areas to serve meals at no charge to all students.
Under the law, school districts do not have to collect meal applications, which expands low-income students’ access to school meals and reduces schools’ administrative liabilities.
Known as the Community Eligibility Provision, the program was initially phased in a few states at a time. It became available in all states beginning with the 2014-2015 school year.
According to a July report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than 14,000 schools serving more than 6.6 million children have adopted it.
Howell said the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District is looking into the program.
He said the district’s current food service program does not generate revenue for the district, but typically breaks even.
Story prompted donations
Bowden’s niece set up a GoFundMe account after she was terminated and the account garnered more than $20,000.
She said Monday that a problem with setup for the account had led to the funds being returned to the donors. But Bowden learned Tuesday that the funds had been placed in a secondary account and she will receive the money, minus the applicable fees.
Aegis Living founder and CEO Dwayne Clark also contacted Bowden on Christmas Eve and donated $15,000 to her cause.
Clark — whose assisted-living company operates in Washington, California and Nevada — said compassion and common sense should be rewarded.
He grew up in Lewiston in a single-parent household. And Clark said many kind lunch ladies provided him with free lunches throughout his school career.
Bowden works part time at the Office Bar and said she’ll keep looking for another part-time gig.
“I’m so grateful to all the people that supported me, the response was overwhelming,” Bowden said. “I’m sorry that I lost a job that I loved, but grateful for the community’s support.”
The position we offered would have provided an avenue for her success rather than fear of failure.
Interim Superintendent Doug Howell