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Gateway Ethics Committee aims to help needy students

| Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Families that are struggling financially this winter could receive a little help from a program spearheaded by the Gateway Ethics Committee, though it isn't clear yet from where the money will come.

An email last month sent by Gateway Superintendent Nina Zetty — who also is a member of the ethics committee — explained to all district employees that if they wanted to donate $1.50 from each of their paychecks from January through June, donations could cover the cost of reduced-price breakfasts and lunches throughout the district for the remainder of the school year.

“The goal is to collect enough money to be able to say to our families, ‘Do not worry about the reduced cost of breakfast or lunch; spend that money on other necessities,' ” Zetty explained at a Dec. 2 school board meeting. “It's not a requirement; it's just a request to all employees.”

Nearly 600 people receive paychecks from the Gateway School District, according to the Allegheny Intermediate Unit website.

As of Monday, only eight employees volunteered.

Teachers viewed the program as unnecessary because they already help students on a case-by-case basis, for example, buying students lunch one day or buying them a winter coat if they need it, Gateway Education Association President Mike Krestar said this week. In fact, the email from Zetty was received just before Thanksgiving, as a group of teachers were cooking and delivering Turkeys to families throughout the district, he said.

“I think the teachers in the district go above and beyond,” he said. “It's not that we're uncaring. I don't think (Zetty) realized the things that we've been doing.”

Gateway school director Jan Rawson said the email from Zetty was inappropriate because of ongoing teacher-contract negotiations in which district officials are seeking concessions from employees. The previous contract expired Aug. 25.

“We're trying to save money for the school district, but then she's asking them to contribute more money,” Rawson said Monday. “Taking from one hand and asking them to give with the other.”

Zetty said the donations wouldn't go to the district but would go directly to needy local families.

“I didn't ask (employees) to give a donation,” she said. “I just said, ‘Here's another way to help our kiddos.' Given the climate of the times, my request was taken in the wrong vain.”

Officials estimate it would cost $87 per week to subsidize reduced-price meals for the remainder of the school year. Donations received so far would cover $12 per week. Of the 3,503 Gateway students, 254 are enrolled in the reduced-price lunch program. The program costs 30 cents a day for breakfast and 40 cents a day for lunch.

Food-service director Martin Lorenzo said he was in favor of the program.

“It helps bridge the gap for households who qualified for reduced meals but still have problems,” Lorenzo said.

A similar program is offered each year at Franklin Regional School District, which typically raises between $10,000 and $12,000 annually to subsidize student meals.

Among the biggest supporters of the Fund-A-Meal program is the Franklin Regional teachers union. It also has some participants from the community.

Zetty's idea to seek help from employees was of good intent, said Rabbi Barbara Symons of Temple David in Monroeville, a member of the Gateway Ethics Committee.

That said, the discussion at the most recent Ethics Committee meeting — which includes school, municipal and religious leaders — swayed toward the community outside of the school district playing a larger role in fully subsidizing the reduced-price lunches via donations at local houses of worship, Symons said.

“I think the goal is laudable,” she said. “If Interfaith (Ministerium) can help with that goal, we will.”

Zetty said officials are considering “sharing tables” and “backpack programs” in schools. A sharing table would allow some students to leave food items and other students to trade for an item or take an item if they're in need. The backpack program would call on local sponsors to provide free backpacks stocked with food for the weekend.

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