Seoul school office groans under cost of cooks

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Seoul school office groans under cost of cooks

The Seoul city government, pleading poverty in the face of costs associated with free day care services, is also facing demands from the city’s education office over the cost of the free school lunch program.

The core of the conflict is 40 billion won ($36 million) in annual wages for cooks and kitchen porters at elementary schools in the city.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education have met three times so far this year to try to reach an agreement, but have failed so far. All labor costs for elementary schools’ kitchen staff are now handled by the education office. The office argues that this is unfair because the same expenses at middle schools are shared with the city government.

Since December 2010, students in the first through fourth grades have received free school lunches funded by the Seoul Education Office and local district offices. Former Mayor Oh Se-hoon resisted an expansion of the free meal program, calling for only poorer students to receive the free meals, and called a referendum on the issue in August 2011. He resigned after the referendum failed because the voter turnout did not meet the minimum necessary.

In November 2011, Mayor Park Won-soon, Oh’s successor, signed a bill on his first day in office approving 18.5 billion won ($16.5 million) for the city’s education office to fund lunches for 197,000 fifth and sixth graders. He expanded the program to middle school students in 2012.

“Due to the expansion of the program, we have to provide an additional hundreds of billions of won every year,” a spokesman for the education office told the JoongAng Ilbo. “To do that, we have to shift money designated for other programs like school facility improvements. We think the city government should at least share the labor costs.”

But the city said because it was already paying for student lunches, a cost earlier borne by parents, there was no reason for the city to also fund the cost of preparing and serving them. It also noted that the education office had always paid preparation and serving costs, even when parents paid a lunch fee.

The total budget for Seoul’s free school lunch program for this year is 395.3 billion won. The city government pays 30 percent (118.6 billion won), the education office 50 percent (197.6 billion won) and Seoul’s 25 district offices pay the remaining 20 percent (79.1 billion won).

The expenses for the program have increased steadily because the number of students and the food costs have risen. Seventh graders started receiving the benefits last year and eighth graders were included this year. Ninth graders will join next year.

The cost of food for the program, hit by inflation and increases in associated expenses such as transportation fees, have risen by double digits this year. Last year’s total budget for the free lunches was 282 billion won, a figure that rose by 113.3 billion won this year. Because ninth graders will be included next year, Seoul will need an additional 80 billion won or so by the next school year.

But the mayor can’t give up this program because it was one of his core pledges in his election campaign. “The program will go on its way as it was planned,” Kim Sang-han, the city government’s budget planning official, told the JoongAng Ilbo. “We are cutting minor projects to provide the necessary funds.”

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