Board delays vote on Howard health policy

A vote on the Howard County Public School System's health and wellness policy won't take place until the fall, but certain aspects of the contested proposal will go into effect for the coming school year.

During a work session Thursday, May 9 the Board of Education decided by consensus to put parts of the policy into practice, such as providing breakfast at every school in the county, establishing a consistent practice of 30 minutes of recess in elementary schools and making all food that is available in student-accessible vending machines compliant with various Institute of Medicine Standards.

But, the board concluded, more work needs to be done when it comes to standards, such as the nutritional guidelines that are referred to in the policy but have not yet been written. The board also decided more discussion needs to take place among schools, PTAs and booster clubs with regard to what food and drinks can and can't be sold at concession stands and for fundraisers.

The vote on the policy — initially scheduled to be approved last Thursday and implemented July 1 — is now set for Nov. 7 and will not take effect until July 1, 2014.

Board Chairman Frank Aquino said the board would need another draft of the policy by September and might have another public hearing. An update on the short-term implementation also will be needed early this summer, he said.

PTA concern

Before the work session, Aquino asked the public in a packed board room to keep their reactions civil.

More than 200 people gathered at the work session, with sentiment split between community members urging stronger practices when it comes to nutrition, and PTA members worried a mandate through the policy would compromise their roles as parents and impede fundraising efforts.

"PTA Council supports strengthening the wellness policy for students," PTA Council President Christina Delmont-Small told board members before the work session. "PTA has been and always will be a strong champion for wellness and better nutrition in our schools."

However, the PTA Council voted not to support the proposal because it would determine what can and can't be sold by PTAs and boosters through the nutritional guidelines, which haven't been written. Trying to mandate what food and beverages can be offered at PTA-sponsored events, rather than work with the PTAs in a partnership, is offensive to PTA parents, she said.

"It usurps the parents' responsibility to determine what the students can and cannot eat after the school day, severely strains school system partnerships with businesses and does not allow students to learn how to make their own healthy choices," Delmont-Small said.

Several board members agreed with the PTA Council, and said the lack of nutritional guidelines creates a gray area for PTAs and boosters.

"I do not want in any way to impede the process for those who have been working so hard and devoting so much of their time and efforts ensuring that our system works and the students have the funds we otherwise would not have," said board member Ann De Lacy. "We have to have balance. I don't want a mandate."

Aquino agreed, and said PTAs and boosters should have a variety of food to sell for the purpose of fundraising. Perhaps, he said, the policy could include an aspirational goal for the amount of healthy food PTAs should sell.

"If they decide they want to have some percentage, a goal (of healthy food to sell), more power to them," he said. "But I don't necessarily know that we have to dictate that."

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