Two local activists have filed a lawsuit against Forest Park School District 91 alleging that the Forest Park Middle School has violated federal law by not providing free and discounted meals and bussing to low-income students.
The lawsuit was filed Feb. 28 in federal court by Deborah Cole and Dr. Negale T. Jackson, founders of the Forest Park Restorative Institute Center (FPRIC) and the Forest Park Future International Lawyer Club.
The suit accuses the school of violating at least six federal statutes, including the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, Child Nutrition Initiative Act of 2003 and the Pupil Bus Transportation Service Act. The suit alleges that Dist. 91 Superintendent Randolph Tinder “conspired with the Forest Park District 91 School Board” by neglecting to inform parents that “at least 50 percent (of students) or near this number should be entitled to these federal funded programs and services” and failing to provide parents with the proper application forms to apply for the programs.
In addition to Tinder, the lawsuit names Middle School Principal Karen Bukowski and names Katherine Denham as school board president, though Lois Bugajsky is actually the current president. The litigants are not seeking a monetary award, but rather an injunction forcing the school to comply with the laws in question.
“The allegations that they make in their lawsuit are absolutely false,” said Tinder. Tinder said that contrary to the lawsuit’s accusations, the district is not obligated by law to provide free breakfast to middle school students, nor is it obligated to provide free bus transportation except for students in special ed or students who live over 1.5 miles from the school.
“Our lunch program is consistent with federal law, and we have never been cited for any violation,” he said, noting that it would be impossible for the school to conceal money intended for free meals as the lawsuit alleges since the program is funded through reimbursements from the government.
According to Dist. 91’s current budget, which is posted at its web site, the district received $130,000 from the federal government for the National School Lunch Program and $17,000 for the School Breakfast Program this year. The district has just over $400,000 budgeted for pupil transportation services.
Cole said that while her two older sons, who attend Proviso East, receive free lunches, her son at the middle school was not granted free lunches after her family moved to Forest Park from Hazel Crest.
She said she sees the lunch issue as part of a larger denial of the village’s growing low-income community by Forest Park’s leaders.
“I think they are stuck in time,” she said. “They’re not aware of the way the demographics have changed. Forest Park has more single mother households than they’ve ever had in the past…It’s a small town and they want to hold on to that, but they don’t know that Forest Park has grown and is in desperate need of low-income programs.”
According to documents available at the USDA web site, all children receiving food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and most foster children are eligible for free meals regardless of income. For the current school year, a family with three children must have an annual income of $20,917 or less to qualify for free meals, while families of three with incomes under $29,767 are eligible for reduced price meals.
Tinder said that nearly 100 of the middle school’s approximately 330 students receive free or discounted lunches, though he noted that some who are eligible do not apply due to social stigmas, particularly among older students.
According to records from the Illinois State Board of Education, 39.3 percent of the middle school’s students and 38.5 percent of the district’s students overall are considered low-income, compared to a state average of 40 percent.
Cole said she has attempted to contact both Tinder and Bukowski but “both people are not interested in talking,” Tinder said that the lawsuit is the first he’s heard about the issue from Cole or anyone else.
He said that he once met with Cole and Jackson along with officials from the park district and village to discuss the procedure for using school facilities for events, but has not heard from them since.
“I’d like to have the opportunity to talk to them about this,” he said.