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JPS Addresses ‘Chip Challenge,’ Audit

The Deke Kathman Administration Building located on Martin Road in Jamestown. P-J file photo

At least one student in Jamestown required medical treatment while others were picked up by their parents from school after recently eating chips coated in spicy flavoring.

Jamestown Public Schools on Tuesday issued a community alert on the potential dangers of taking part in the “One Chip Challenge” made popular on social media. Made by Paqui, the product comes in coffin-shaped packaging and consists of a single tortilla chip marketed as containing “Carolina Reaper” and “Ghost Pepper” seasonings.

Dr. Kevin Whitaker, Jamestown schools superintendent, further addressed the chips during a school board meeting Tuesday. “We have had a couple of incidents in school related to this hot chip challenge,” he told the board, “and it is very concerning because we’ve had some students here that have had some medical issues related to that.”

Specifically, Whitaker said one student brought the chip to school in a backpack and consumed it during lunch. He said another student brought it as a snack and consumed it with other students.

Speaking with reporters after the meeting, the superintendent said one student needed medical attention after eating the chip while other students went home afterward and likely sought care.

As noted in the alert sent out to parents, students who have engaged in the challenge elsewhere have become “violently ill, including some cases of a need for emergency medical attention.” Adverse symptoms reportedly include severe abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and difficulty breathing that can last more than 24 hours and lead to more severe health complications.

Whitaker said the school district was contacted by 7-Eleven, which said it was taking the product off its shelves after learning of at least one student becoming ill.

In other business, Whitaker and Paul Abbott, school board president, briefly addressed an audit by the state Comptroller’s Office of the district’s fund balance and reserves. A report on the audit’s findings was recently released.

Other key findings: the district maintained a surplus fund balance in excess of the 4% statutory limit and annually appropriated a balance that was not used to fund operations; overestimated budgetary appropriations by an annual average of $6.5 million; the district could not demonstrate that the balances in five reserves were reasonable and lacked a plan for use.

The audit looked at budgets passed in 2018, 2019 and 2020, prior to Whitaker’s arrival as superintendent and Brittnay Spry as director of budgets and finance.

Whitaker said the district began to hold back on purchasing in the fall of 2020, after then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo “made it very clear” that he would withhold state aid to schools. The federal government had earmarked money for schools in each state, with Jamestown receiving $3 million.

“Gov. Cuomo made good on his threats by essentially confiscating that $3 million,” Whitaker said, “meaning he allowed it to come to the school but he withheld $3 million worth of state aid. He then said, ‘Be prepared for an additional 20% cut in your school aid,’ which would have been devastating. We would have lost everything that was not required.”

Then, as COVID hit, the federal government provided aid to schools to manage the crisis. “On top of the amount that we had not spent, we got a bunch of new money that we had a choice of what to do with,” Whitaker said.

Schools were given a few options: mail checks to residents; spend all the money as seen fit within two months; pay down debt, which JPS did, Whitaker said; and put money aside in reserves, which the district also utilized.

Abbott said he’s in favor of audits and outside review. He said the timing of comptroller’s audit was difficult due to the pandemic and withholding of aid.

“It is a rollercoaster and we always are subject to the unpredictability of what the state is going to give us in state aid,” Abbott said. “In essence, what they did was they told us winter was coming and it was going to be a terrible winter. And they punished us for gathering too many nuts. And, in fact, winter didn’t come from a budgetary standpoint so it left us with more in reserves than perhaps we’ve had before.”

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