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Contributed Photo by Tahnika Rodriguez / Parents volunteer in Westview Elementary's cafeteria to help lunch workers make food during a staff shortage.

Lunch staff in the Hamilton County school district is in short supply, so much so that, at some schools, parents have had to volunteer in the cafeteria.

But soon that may change. The Hamilton County Board of Education approved a $2 raise for lunch staff from $13 per hour to $15 per hour Thursday.

The vote passed 7-0 with Tucker McClendon, of East Ridge, and Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, absent.

In May, the board approved a fiscal year 2023 budget that included a 3% raise for teachers, a $15 per hour minimum starting wage for classified employees and a new incremental raise structure. The changes raised the lunch staff pay from $12 per hour to $13 per hour, but nutrition officials say that has not been enough.

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"We've always struggled to fill our positions because they're the lowest-paid positions in the school district," Director of School Nutrition Kristen Nauss said in a phone call.

Prior to the 2021-22 school year, the position paid $9.75 an hour, Nauss said. Raising it to $12 helped maintain staff through the pandemic, but the system is down 10% to 15% of lunch workers most times.

To help with the shortage, parents at Westview Elementary volunteered for the majority of the school year, Teacher-Parent Organization President at Westview Tahnika Rodriguez said in a phone call.

"By the time the kids could get through lunch, they were not being able to get everything that was offered. So we were trying to figure out what was going on," Rodriguez said.

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Contributed Photo by Tahnika Rodriguez / Parents volunteer in Westview Elementary's cafeteria to help lunch workers make food during a staff shortage.

She learned that parents at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences had been volunteering in their cafeteria, so she put a call to action in her newsletter.

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Taylor Trent, a parent of students at Westview, said in a phone interview there were sign-ups every day: one slot in the morning and two in the afternoon.

"I also felt really badly, because you could tell that the ladies who were there were overworked, and they needed more help," Trent said. "They were always so grateful for parents that would come in and help volunteer because you could tell they couldn't do it all themselves."

Tammy Lambert, school nutrition manager at Battle Academy, said she and her lunch staff worked overtime.

"Some of us, we will have to work over and fill in for others that we're short-handed for. It does impact us," Lambert said in an interview.

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Nauss said certain schools are particularly hard to staff.

"It's hardest in our more affluent communities as well as the magnets, for some reason. Those are typically the ones where parents are coming in to help," Nauss said.

She said she attributes this to lower pay among other factors. For instance, in a wealthier area, there might be fewer people willing to work for lower wages.

"These are the types of jobs, because they are lower paid, they don't want to travel far," Nauss said.

In addition to the pay raise, the district also has a bid to contract with a lunch staffing agency for when schools are short-staffed.

The raise will cost the district $1.2 million in salaries and benefits and will be funded by the general-purpose budget.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.

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