Vending machines restricted

Dec. 15, 2003, midnight | By KC Costanzo | 20 years, 6 months ago

Imposed timeouts may hurt revenue

Vending machines with items deemed "minimally nutritious" will only be allowed to operate after school because of a resolution passed by the Board of Education (BOE) on Dec. 9. The resolution, which will take effect after winter break, could result in the loss of tens of thousands of dollars for Blair.

Principal Phillip Gainous expressed concern over the passed resolution because Blair's current contract with Pepsi stipulates that vending machines must be left on during the school day in exchange for the $55,000 annual payment. The contract states that if the machines are turned off, Blair will only be paid a monthly commission instead. "They aren't going to pay us not to make any money," explained Gainous.

Blair also has a contract with Monumental Vending for snack food that gives the school 30 percent of the gross sales. Should the snack vending machines be turned off during the day, Blair would lose a significant amount of the approximately $20,000 it makes annually, according to Business Manager Anne Alban.

Despite the financial hit schools might take from turning the machines off, Patricia O'Neill, the BOE member who initiated the resolution, defended her stance. "We have an obligation to ensure a healthy environment," she said.

In Gainous' opinion, the money from the vending machines is essential to pay for new computers, programs not financed by MCPS and test fees for students who cannot afford to take AP tests nor the SAT. "In order for the Blair community to have what more affluent communities can give their students," he said, "we have to have that vending machine money."

Springbrook High School Principal Michael Durso, who uses vending machine money to reduce the cost students have to pay for AP tests, questioned the actions of the BOE. "There's no way our vending machine companies are going to continue shelling out the kind of bonuses that let us implement these initiatives if we're changing the rules midstream," he said. "I wonder if anyone has considered the legal ramifications."

O'Neill said there are a variety of ways schools could make up any lost revenue, including a raise in extracurricular fees, a notion which Gainous rejected. He said more affluent schools could afford an increase in activity prices and still expect students to pay, but he did not believe the same would occur at Blair. "The schools who have fewer resources, it's going to hurt those schools," he said. "That's not what this county is about."

Some Blair students took issue with the resolution as well. Senior Josh Scannell believes Blair needs the money to provide students with opportunities given to teenagers at other schools and said he is planning a possible protest. "If it comes down to it and central office takes away our money which we need for basic services for our students," he said, "then we will take to the street."

Community Superintendent Walter Gibson said he thinks people are assuming schools will lose money, but he pointed out some schools have introduced measures to limit junk food intake without a significant loss of revenue. "Let's see what happens," he said. "Maybe we'll be surprised [and schools will not lose money]."

The reasons for dissent were not limited to funding issues. Student Member of the Board Sagar Sangvhi voted against the resolution because he believed students should be allowed to make up their minds about what to purchase. "We're moving in the direction of moving away from student choice," he said. "I don't think it will benefit students."

PTSA Co-President Valerie Ervin found the idea that students should be barred from vending machine items ridiculous. "I think it's sort of absurd by the time a kid gets to high school to tell them what they can and can't have," she said.

A taskforce to study alternatives to "non-nutritious beverages" with the goal of eliminating such items from vending machines at some point was created in late October by the BOE. The taskforce met only twice before the resolution extending restrictions on vending machines was passed, and the report the group was commissioned to present was never completed.

Gainous was a member of the workgroup and was confused by the sudden introduction of the vending machine resolution. "Why is this committee meeting?" he asked. "That's one of the perplexing things to me. Why this resolution that would undercut that committee?"

Gainous did not find out about the vending machine resolution until Nov. 24, or 13 days after O'Neill introduced it at a meeting on Nov. 11. According to Gainous, MCPS principals were unaware of the resolution until a meeting on Dec. 3 when he brought the issue up. "None of the principals knew about this resolution," he said. "If they did, they would have been talking about it." Gainous said he felt the outcome of the vote might have been different had principals been informed of the pending changes.

Approximately 550 to 600 students, or only about one fifth of the student body, take an eighth period class resulting in a smaller number of possible consumers than during the rest of the school day. Currently, vending machines selling soda are disabled all day until the end of 5B lunch.

Council member Tom Perez said there was "no indication" the resolution could be brought before the County Council to be overturned.

A second resolution that would have removed vending machines from the entrances of schools did not pass by one vote.

Additional reporting by Easha Anand and Izaak Orlansky

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KC Costanzo. Keith "KC" Costanzo is one of the brand-spanking-new editors-in-chief of <i>Silver Chips Online</i>. His responsibilities include maintaining the journalistic integrity of the paper and making sure no one spontaneously combusts due to the stress of deadlines. KC enjoys late night frisbee games and long hours … More »

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