AUBURN — Providing free lunches to all public school students would cost taxpayers an estimated $200,000 per year, Superintendent Katy Grondin said this week.

Universal free lunch has been discussed nationwide as a way to feed schoolchildren without shaming them or accumulating debt. Such a program is not part of Grondin’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021.

“I did not put this in the budget because we have other priorities,” she told the School Committee on Wednesday night.

“Taxpayers would have a hard time saying no to feeding kids, so it’s definitely something we should think about,” Committee member Rose Walker said.

Grondin said all children are fed, regardless of ability to pay.

Lunch debt in many Maine districts has escalated this year because of a new law that prohibits schools from shaming students who can’t or don’t pay for lunch.


Debt has held steady in Auburn, Grondin said. Her proposed budget includes $10,000 — the district’s average debt per year — to cover the debt of students who leave the district without paying. It’s a new line item, she said, adding that the nutrition program would charge the general fund for uncollected debt.

If only elementary school pupils received free lunch, it would cost $100,000. Those schools are where most lunch debt occurs, Business Manager Adam Hanson said.

Grondin said the district receives donations toward meals and works with parents to set up payment plans or scholarships for those who are “just over the cusp” of income eligibility.

“It’s a challenge,” she said, “but everyone gets fed every day.”

The “food-shaming” law passed by the Maine Legislature in April 2019 went into effect this past fall. Under the law, students who do not pay for meals cannot be stigmatized, identified or punished in any way.

Also on Wednesday, Grondin gave an overview of the proposed budget, which is up $2.97 million over the current spending plan.


Increases include:

• $1.6 million in contracted salary increases.

• $898,000 for special education.

• $514,000 for new positions, including four new education technicians for elementary school classes with more than 25 pupils and social workers at Fairview, Park Avenue and Sherwood Elementary schools.

“We are going to need an increase in taxes,” Grondin said. “How much the community and the council are willing to support, we’ll see as we work through it.”

A joint budget discussion among the School Committee and the City Council is scheduled for March 23.

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