Glasgow's school meals service is at crisis point as the council's budget emergency forces pupils to vote with their feet. The admission is the clearest demonstration yet that councils are finding even agreed spending cuts almost impossible to achieve.
Malcolm Green, the city's education convener, told councillors last week: "We have now reached a critical point which throws up very serious consequences for the school catering service. We can't just apply cuts and expect the money to be realised."
Anticipated savings of just under #163;1.3 million from school catering, including expected additional income, are not likely to be achieved before the financial year runs out in March. The shortfall of #163;416,000 will be discussed at next Monday's Labour group meeting along with what Dr Green called other "hard decisions".
Ian McDonald, Glasgow's depute director of education, commented: "An already difficult savings package is proving difficult to achieve and is having unfortunate consequences."
Cuts have reduced the nutritional content of school meals and pupils have less choice, Mr McDonald admitted. "The number paying for school meals has gone down significantly and there has also been a deeply regrettable drop in the number taking free meals."
The crisis comes on top of other projected shortfalls. The savings target in community education is adrift by #163;436,000 and "modest" progress is being made towards reductions of #163;136,000 from community lets of schools which officials say can only be realised by imposing a moratorium on the use of schools by outside groups.
Dr Green commented: "Hard decisions will be necessary if these savings are to be achieved. Harder decisions will follow if we do not make the savings."
He said later: "The Labour group has already agreed that drastic measures will be required to bring the budget closer into line to lighten the load for next year. "
Dr Green hinted that he would expect the council not to penalise the education budget unduly since "a great deal of the shortfall is due to reasons outwith the control of the education department, such as the council as a whole taking decisions which prevented us pursuing some of the savings options".
The collapse of the school closures programme left a #163;2.2 million hole in the budget.
"But the fact remains that we have a shortfall, and unpalatable decisions are all that is available in the remaining months of the financial year," Dr Green said. "We can't fire staff or close schools in that short space of time and early retirement packages would wipe out any savings we might make."
Glasgow is having to indulge in further financial juggling next year as it raids the capital programme to pay for improvements to school security. Special protective measures will eat up a fifth of the council's #163;3.9 million Scottish Office allocation for expenditure on buildings and equipment in 1997-98.
A number of projects worth some #163;7.6 million, which city officials have assessed as being of "high priority", will not go ahead because of the lack of central government support.