Schools grappling with unpaid lunch bills

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WESTBROOK — As the school year winds down, Director of School Nutrition Barbara Nichols and other school officials are working hard to connect with families who owe the program more than $17,000 for meals they received but never paid for. 

Nichols said a number of students owe the district more than $50. She said as of May 14, 57 elementary students owe a combined $10,554, including one student who owes close to $500. At the middle school, 33 students owe $6,168 and at the high school, three students owe a combined $426. School nutrition debt, Nichols said, follows students from year to year until it gets paid off.

Nichols, Director of Operations Dean Flanagin and Superintendent Peter Lancia met May 14 to discuss ways the school system could better manage school nutrition debt. Nichols said the district will be “tweaking” its practices. The school board’s finance committee will take up the issue at its next meeting, set for June 6.

The nutrition department sends letters every Friday throughout the school year to parents whose students owe $5 or more, but that correspondence often is ignored, Nichols said. Once an elementary school student owes more than $20, a letter is sent home along with an application for free or reduced lunches. Once the debt climbs to $50, a meeting with the parents, Nichols and the building principal is requested to set up a payment plan. When the debt climbs to $100, parents are asked to set up a payment meeting with Nichols and Flanagin.

The same procedure is used at the middle school, but when an account there has $2 left in it, students are asked to remind their parents to replenish it.  High school students are directly told when they have reached a $5 debt maximum.

“What will come of it I am not exactly sure, or how we will be able to recoup the cost if parents won’t respond to letters, phone call or even face-to face-interactions,” said Finance Committee Chairman Veronica Bates. 

Bates said the school department has “stop gaps in place” to help keep the debt from spiraling and to entice families to pay what they owe. Students in elementary and middle schools who owe money, for example, are not allowed to purchase a la carte items, but can get the school lunch option. At the high school, if a student owes more than $5, he or she can’t get the school lunch meal or a la carte items.

“I want to feed kids. I’ve been in this business for 35 years. I love it and the last thing I want to do is take food away from kids. I don’t want to be a debt collector, but I need to be responsible with taxpayer money and manage the program as best we can,” Nichols said.

Working with families to get them to pay off their debt, Nichols said, is not something she takes lightly.

“I don’t know what’s happening at home. I don’t want want to put a burden on top of a family that is already burdened if I don’t have to,” she said, adding that if a student came to her hungry she would take it upon herself to make sure that student was fed.

A law pending in the Legislature could change the way student debt is handled at the high school level. LD 1684: An Act Regarding Meals in Public Schools states a school district “shall provide such a meal to a student who requests the meal and is otherwise eligible for the meal regardless of the student’s ability to pay for the school meal or failure in the past to pay for school meals.”

“If that passes, our debt will jump, skyrocket,” Nichols said. “Without a way to manage the debt, it can get out of hand pretty quickly.”

The bill would also prohibit districts from “openly identifying or stigmatizing” a student who cannot pay for a meal or has an unpaid balance. It would require a “public school to communicate about a student’s meal debts directly to the parent or guardian of the student rather than to the student; and requires the school board of a public school to establish a policy for collection of debts owed to the school lunch program.”

Bates said she struggles with how to proceed because on one hand this year “was not an easy school budget process and every dollar counts,” but on the other “we have kids who need to eat.”

Bates said what she wants to avoid is  having to make up the deficit in the school nutrition budget by tapping into the school’s taxpayer-supported general fund.

“I don’t think that would go over well for anybody,” she said.

Nichols said, that, however, is the reality. State law dictates that if a debt is not paid off by the time a student graduates, the debt has to be paid with taxpayer funding.

Bates said the district has been fortunate in recent years to have the debt wiped out by good Samaritans.

“We have been very lucky someone has reached out and asked what the lunch debt was and paid it off,” she said.  “We can’t rely on that.”

Nichols said last year she was able to pay off the debt of students who were eligible forfree or reduced lunch but weren’t part of that program thanks to a $1,460 donation from Saco and Biddeford Savings Institution and a $300 donation from the Maine Hunger Initiative.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com or on Twitter @mkelleynews

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