Stories like this always aggravate me, because they remind me that the school system is more concerned about money than the well-being of their students. Bonnie Kimball, who operated the cash register at Mascoma Valley Regional High School, was fired from her position at the school after she let a student take his lunch without paying because he didn't have any money left in his lunch account.
Kimball loved her job at the school, where she got to talk to the school's 326 students about life, their problems, and the general happenings of their day.
"We didn't even call it work," Kimball said of working at the school. "We got up in the morning, we took care of our families and we went to take care of the kids."
On March 28th, a student came in to the line with a tray of food, but Kimball noticed he didn't have any money left in his account. Instead of having the student go hungry for the day, Kimball let him take the food with a promise to bring the money. Unfortunately, there happened to be a district manager for Cafe Services, the company who runs the school's cafeteria.
"When I rang him up, the student didn't have any money on their account," Kimball said. "So, I have a district manager here, my boss has told me "˜Don't cause any scenes with the contract' and I quietly said "˜tell (your) mom you need money.'"
The next day, Kimball was called in to the manager's office and was fired. The reasoning? They claimed that she had "stolen" the food from the company. She was escorted out of the building.
"It was my life for five years. I went and I took care of another family," she said. "You don't just lose a family member, be OK and move on."
Two fellow co-workers were so upset with Kimball's termination, they quit their jobs on the spot. Parents of some students have also voice displeasure with the way the school and cafe company handled the situation.
"These guys really took care of our kids. They put our kids first and their focus was really our kids," said Christina Moodie, whose son attends the high school. I know Bonnie went above and beyond for the kids."
Cafe Services hasn't responded to requests for comment on the situation, but in their termination letter to Kimball, they made their point very clear.
"On March 28, a District manager was on-site and witnessed a student coming through the line with multiple food items that you did not charge him for," said the letter, which Kimball shared with the Valley News. "This is a strict violation of our Cash Handling Procedures, the Schools Charge Policy and Federal Regulation governing free meals."
Kimball is now out of work, and she's concerned that this mark on her record could ultimately affect her job search in the future.
"I'm just dealing with so much right now: the public, paperwork. One minute I'm mad and the next minute, I just want to forget it all happened," she said. "I guess I'm mourning my job."
She says, however, that it's not the school district's fault, and that the officials from the board have been supportive and encouraging during this situation. Cookie Hebert, chairman of Mascoma Valley Regional School Board, wouldn't comment directly on Kimball's situation, but she did say that Kimball was just following the rules set out by the district.
"The policy is that the student be fed," Hebert said. "There's no refusal."
After the story went viral, the company offered Kimball her job back, saying they would pay her for the work she missed.
"We had a recent situation where an employee violated school and company policy in dealing with our food service and our district manager made a decision he felt was right at the time," said Brian Stone, president of the company's school division.
Amanda Isabelle, the district superintendent, also said the school would hire Kimball back.
"The events of these past few weeks and the feedback I have received from parents has given me considerable pause," Isabelle said in the statement. "As a school district, we understand the importance of rules and procedures, but upon reflection, I have become sufficiently convinced that it is wrong of us to assume that all the responsibility falls to the vendor, and I do not believe our communities would accept that explanation of this situation. We must be accountable for the people who work in our schools."
Despite the offer, the former lunch lady won't be returning.
"They're not doing it for me, they are doing it to save face," Kimball noted.
Personally, I think it's ridiculous for a company to fire Kimball because she was allowing a student to eat, especially because the parent did pay the $8 for the food. Sometimes, politics need to be put aside and the well-being of our kids needs to be the focus.