After nearly 30 minutes of debate the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education voted 4 to 3 on Tuesday night to approve an $18,000 food budget for “employee relations” for the 2013-14 school year.

The vote seems to assure that an annual employee recognition dinner, or at least some kind of district-wide event, will occur again this this year, though the precise nature of that event will be determined by the district leadership.

The $18,000 will cover all spending for food for employees.

“It would be our annual event, it would be any kind of food for institute days, it would be for any kind of ad hoc celebrations that might occur on the holiday,” said school board President Mary Rose Mangia, who cast the deciding vote in favor of the motion. “The total budget for all food catering.”

Lisa Gaynor, David Kodama, and Michael O’Brien joined Mangia in voting for the motion. Rachel Marrello, Randy Brockway and Art Perry voted against the motion.

Last year District 96 spent between $20,000 and $22,000 for meals for employees, said Zack Zayed, the district’s director of finance and operations. Of that amount, $9,216 was spent for the annual employee recognition dinner, which has been held for the last 11 years at the Riverside Golf Club. The dinner has been going on for the last 27 years.

The resolution, which was developed by the central office leadership of the district, requires that the district office approves all expenditures for food for employees. In previous years, principals had discretion to spend money from the supply budget to buy meals for staff on institute days and special occasions.

“We’re going to let the administration manage this,” Mangia said. “Hopefully they don’t spend all the money in one place. This is it. Everything comes out of it, and it’s tracked, it’s approved and that’s it. Just because we’re authorizing $18,000, I hope they don’t feel compelled to spend every dime of it.”

Before the board discussion and vote Patricia Gill, a music teacher at L.J. Hauser Junior High School and the president of the Riverside Education Council (REC), the union local for district teachers and paraprofessionals, said that it was important to hold a district-wide event to recognize staff. About 15 District 96 staff members sat behind Gill in a show of support.

In her statement to the board, Gill pointedly did not use the word “dinner,” leaving open the possibility of supporting some other kind of district-wide event.

“Members of the REC are here tonight to show our support for an employee recognition event,” Gill told the board. “Please notice that I use the word event. The event is important to recognize the achievements of all staff members and celebrate our district accomplishments in a professional atmosphere.”

However, O’Brien seemed committed to the idea of a dinner.

He sought to receive a guarantee from Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis that, if the $18,000 food budget was approved, there would be an employee recognition dinner this year.

“My question to you is that if we vote this $18,000 in, will you have that dinner?” O’Brien asked.

“I mean, yes, if that’s been what’s been past practice,” Sharma-Lewis replied.

O’Brien said that he wasn’t wedded to having the dinner at the golf club.

“I’d like to see the recognition dinner held,” O’Brien said. “Maybe at the country club, maybe somewhere else.”

Mangia left open the possibility of altering the location or type of event.

“I don’t think you’re committed to holding the event in the same way,” Mangia said.

But Mangia said most employers hold some type of event to recognize employees and occasionally buy food for employees.

“I think it’s unrealistic to go down to zero dollars for employee relations,” Mangia said. “I don’t know if 18 is the right number or 10 is the right number, but I’m willing to support for this year an $18,000 expenditure for employee-related catering.”

Brockway said the amount was too high.

“I would feel more comfortable with a greater cut,” Brockway said before voting no. “I would feel much more comfortable if we were talking about a total of maybe $10,000 rather than $18,000.”

Marrello, who had described cost of the dinner, which is free to all staff members and school board members and spouses of school board members, as outrageous and improper at the August school board meeting when she first raised the issue, restated her arguments Tuesday.

“It’s not about appreciation or lack of appreciation, but we have to cut the excess and to me this is like a no-brainer,” Marrello said. “The PTA and PTO do a fantastic job of honoring our teachers with an appreciation week. And I think the PTO goes above and does more. We just need to be budget conscious. How do we tell our taxpayers that we’re going to continue to tax them to the max and then keep spending like this?”

But Gaynor disagreed.

“My position is opposite your position,” Gaynor told Marrello. “I do feel that there’s a need to celebrate success and recognition of time and service. School districts are still doing this.”