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For the last two years, nearly all Buffalo public school students through eighth grade have had free breakfast in their classrooms.

Teachers got a free breakfast, too, and they may have enjoyed the quiet social time with their students before first period. More importantly, since the district instituted the classroom breakfast program, more than 6,000 additional children have taken advantage of a free breakfast benefit that the district has offered for nearly 15 years.

But kids are messy, and apparently some teachers are sick of cleaning up spilled milk, collecting crumbs and dealing with ants. On their behalf, the Buffalo Teachers Federation filed a grievance against the district that threatens to put an end to the classroom breakfast program.

“It got to be a real mess,” said BTF President Phil Rumore. “Up until last year, it was in the cafeterias, and it was better organized than it is now. The complaint of the teachers was the milk would be spilled, the crumbs would be all over the place.”

The classroom breakfast program attracted pests, and teachers were spending more time cleaning up their classrooms in the morning, leaving less time to teach, Rumore said.

The long-standing grievance was subject to hearings that started in March, continued in July and will pick up again later this month.

In the meantime, concerned parents are hoping to meet with the BTF on Wednesday to persuade them to drop their grievance against the district.

“The program is definitely in danger,” said Jessica Bauer Walker, chairwoman of the District Parent Coordinating Council’s Health Committee and executive director of the Community Health Worker Network.

The grievance poses serious concerns for a district with students who are overwhelmingly poor and more likely to suffer from hunger. School breakfast advocates point to research that indicates students who eat breakfast are more likely to show up to school, pay more attention in class and perform better on standardized tests.

Bridget Wood, the district’s director of food services, said that many teachers and administrators were concerned about the classroom breakfast program when it was first introduced to half the elementary schools in 2010-11. But at a later workshop, many teachers talked about how thrilled they were at the way it worked out.

“They said they thought it would be a nightmare but was the best thing that ever happened to us,” she recalled.

According to feedback received by parents and administrators, students made more of an effort to get to their classrooms as they soon as they got off the bus. The classrooms were calmer. Students enjoyed eating with their peers, were generally less disruptive during the day and made fewer visits to the nurse.

“Teachers encourage the kids to clean up after themselves,” Walker said. “It really builds class responsibility and classroom cohesion with the students.”

Rumore said the BTF supports school breakfast programs but believes students should be eating breakfast in the cafeteria, not in the classroom. Otherwise, he said, the district should hire more teachers aides to help with classroom cleanup.

“Obviously, we’re looking for a solution on how to make this thing work out,” he said.

The problem with using the cafeteria is that there isn’t enough room in school cafeterias to accommodate all the children who are eligible to receive breakfast. On average, school cafeterias are only large enough to accommodate about a third of the student body, which is why schools offer several lunch periods during the day, Wood said.

In the past, the district opened its cafeteria breakfast line 20 minutes before class started and hurry kids out as quickly as possible so that other waiting children could take a seat, she said. In many cases, kids simply bypassed the cafeteria altogether.

Walker said the cafeteria is also a noisy and chaotic environment for young children who would prefer to eat with their classmates in their homerooms.

After the Buffalo school district instituted the breakfast in the classroom program across nearly all elementary schools, Wood said, the number of Buffalo students eating breakfast – including high schoolers – jumped by a third, from 18,000 kids to 24,000.

Though teacher surveys subsequently took issue with things like the food choices, and how healthy or unhealthy the provided breakfast food was, Wood said, relatively few complained about the uncleanliness or inconvenience of the program.

“Truly, there was a lot of push-back from teachers and principals initially, and within weeks, teachers and principals were saying this wasn’t as bad as they thought,” she said.

Rumore, however, said that many teachers have taken issue with the program and that his goal with the grievance is to find a way to work out an arrangement with the district on a school-by-school basis.

He said the program has encouraged pests like mice and ants and that some children were hoarding the food to eat in class later. Cleanup was also a major issue for teachers.

This prompted the union to file a grievance against the district, saying that it violated the contract’s requirement that the district provide a “safe and healthful” environment and adequate teaching time.

“Yes, a lot of teachers like the program,” he said, “but we have to make sure this is not affecting instructional time. We’re open to working it out, but that just didn’t happen, so we had to file a grievance.”

Wood said, “We looked at: Is there another way to feed all these kids? And truly, there isn’t, unless you have breakfast periods the way you have lunch periods, and that definitely cuts into the school day.”

Parents and community members are worried enough about the arbitration hearing and the impact on the classroom breakfast program that they’re hoping to meet with Rumore this week.

Walker said she’s tried to arrange a meeting with the president but has been unsuccessful so far.

They are also hosting a community event outside the BTF headquarters Wednesday morning to bring attention to this issue.

“We just want to understand what the issues are,” Walker said. “We’re going to have students there, parents there, and have a dialogue. We want to send a message to the BTF and basically ask them to drop the arbitration.”

For more on this story, visit www.buffaloschools.org/schoolzone. email: stan@buffnews.com