Mirroring debates around the country about the health of school lunches and the constraints of shrinking budgets, a Tuesday hearing about the Up-Island Regional School District’s 2013 operating budget centered around whether and how the schools could fit a healthier but more expensive food program into their budget. The well-attended hearing included a vocal group of parents and teachers advocating for the schools to take over the school lunch program.

In the end, the school committee voted not to abandon a contract with Chartwells, its third party provider, though members continued to support kitchen renovations at the West Tisbury School. With $100,000 added to the budget to finance the new kitchen and payments continuing on school renovations, some committee members said despite support for a school-run lunch program, the cost might be too much to bear this year.

At the beginning of the meeting, Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss announced that a special education student moved to an off-Island facility this week, with Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury sharing the annual cost to the school, $195,108. The added expense — about $97,554 for each district — will be included in the budget, Mr. Weiss said.

The 2013 budget presented at the start of the meeting Tuesday, which did not include this additional expense, was at $8.86 million, an increase of just over six per cent, or about $509,096, from 2012. Aquinnah’s share of the assessed budget increased 31.8 per cent, Mr. Weiss said, while Chilmark’s share increased by 6.2 per cent and West Tisbury’s portion went up 3.7 per cent. The total assessed budget is up 6.2 per cent, at $8.77 million.

Up-Island parents, who made up a large portion of the audience of about 25 people Tuesday evening, have mobilized to advocate for both the new kitchen and new food service, citing concerns about the quality of food provided by Chartwells.

A kitchen renovation at the West Tisbury School will make it possible for school lunch to be prepared on-site for the West Tisbury and Chilmark schools. The budget includes $100,000 for these renovations, though South Mountain Company architect Ryan Bushey said the kitchen renovation budget has decreased from an estimated $81,400 to $74,800, which includes a 10 per cent contingency.

The up-Island schools now have a contract with the regional high school to receive food prepared off-site by Chartwells delivered to the schools.

According to a hand-out at the meeting, for fiscal year 2011, the school district’s school lunch revolving account ended in a deficit of more than $16,700, with revenue at about $59,244 and expenses at $77,306.

The next phase of the program would call for shifting food service from the third-party provider to school control. According to Island Grown Schools director Noli Hoye Taylor, the estimated cost for food and staff for the next phase of the project would be $186,000, with an estimated $97,250 in revenue, to feed 125 students.

“The thought of creating a working kitchen without the plan in place to create an independent meals program for the up-Island schools is not doing our part to ensure proper nutrition for our children,” said parent and Island Grown Schools coordinator Nicole Cabot, who distributed several letters from parents, teachers, and the school nurse in support of the program. “It would just mean cooking marginal and sometimes hazardous meals in a nice kitchen.”

“I’m not afraid for us to pitch this to the town[s],” said school committee member Michael Marcus, adding that he feels a “level of responsibility that we get it into our budget.”

Most members of the school committee agreed that the change was a good idea, though they had concerns about the timing and the cost. “I have a feeling that . . . a more nutritional lunch program is pretty widely supported here,” said Perry Ambulos. “We just have to be ready to accept a deficit.” He added: “I really have a tough time rationalizing this kind of money and justifying that kind of deficit,” citing concerns about the yearly cost, especially with tough economic times. “I don’t want to hear next year that we have to cut teachers.”

Mr. Weiss noted that with the added expenses of the school kitchen renovation and the off-Island school placement, the addition to the budget might “be a hard sell.”

“My fear is that the whole thing gets shot down,” said Jason Napior, who is donating construction labor for the new kitchen. “I think you’d have a hard time coming up with another group to do that a year from now.”

Committee members Roxanne Ackerman and Michael Marcus voted in favor of adding $120,000 into the budget to take over food service. Perry Ambulos, Dan Cabot, and Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter 3rd voted against the proposal, though some said they did favor the change — just not for this school year.

“I think eventually it’s something we should do,” Mr. Cabot said. “We want to teach our kids what good health is all about and good nutrition is all about.” Mr. Cabot said he would “go to the mat” to get the item into the 2014 budget. “I think we need to postpone taking over the food service until we actually have the kitchen in place,” he said, adding: “I’m with you in the following year.”

Ms. Taylor said she hoped the parents didn’t feel demoralized by the committee’s decision. “Momentum for change won’t stop,” she said.

The project has “incredible momentum and we’re not going anywhere,” said Ms. Cabot after the meeting. “We’ll redouble our efforts and work on it for next year.”

The school committee is scheduled to vote to certify the budget at its Dec. 19 meeting.