When introduced last month, the financial plans for Livingston Parish schools drew little discussion from elected leaders, except on one issue — whether local districts should pitch in to help pay for the school food services program.

Thursday, the board is expected to approve this year’s budgets with a funding plan that has changed since it was first drafted.

When the food services department was created decades ago, federal funding and the cost of lunch in the cafeteria meant the department could pay its own expenses. But now, the parish must pay subsidies from the general fund — up to $4.3 million in 2009.

This year, for the second time, business manager Terry Hughes drew up budget drafts that would require the parish’s 10 local school districts to contribute to the school food services fund, at a combined cost of $495,000 this fiscal year.

The amount would pay for utilities, which districts must pay everywhere else on campus using funds from their second sales tax.

“I just don’t understand. What difference does it make?” Hughes said of the distinction between paying for classroom and library electricity but not kitchen electricity.

But board members resisted, saying the districts depend on the money for facility improvements and that requiring them to make the payments would especially hurt smaller, poorer and more rural districts.

The finance committee amended the proposed budget so the local districts would not be required to make the payments, which would instead come out of the general fund’s reserve.

Committee Chairman Buddy Mincey said he supports the decision because some districts felt more desperate to hold on to their second sales tax proceeds. In his district, Denham Springs, the funding is helping to pay for expansions to Southside Elementary and Southside Junior High, among other projects.

Though most of the discussion focused on the $495,000 payment, the amount represents far less than one percent of the general fund’s budgeted expenditures. But in cash-strapped Livingston Parish schools, it’s an amount worth debating for the School Board members.

“Both pockets always don’t have enough,” Mincey said of the district funds and general fund.

Meanwhile, the parish is trying to make the school food services department break even again. In May, the board voted to increase meal prices by a quarter in an effort to raise approximately $450,000 each year. The parish is also thinning out the staff through attrition, said Leah Smith, supervisor of the Child Nutrition Program.

In 2010, the system decided the department should aim to make 14 meals for every labor hour. They were up to 13.3 last spring, Smith continued. She’s also trying to lure more students to the cafeteria line by offering more breakfast options and reintroducing items like salad bars at some schools.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.