South Whidbey schools may crack down on unpaid lunches

LANGLEY — South Whidbey school officials are fed up with students who charge meals in the cafeteria, but don’t pay their bills.

Unpaid debts from children charging breakfast and lunch have piled up, and the amount totals a whopping $9,310 over the past several years. That represents — at roughly $2.50 per meal — about 3,724 lunches or breakfasts that students have consumed at the school district’s expense.

Earlier this week, the school board took a long look at ways to recover the money. Students currently use a special pre-paid card which is swiped at the register when they pick up food, then are supposed to pay it off at the end of the term.

Ideas on the table include sending notes home to parents to remind them of unpaid meal bills, calling them at work or at home, sending unpaid bills to collection agencies, or cutting off students with delinquent accounts and giving them a cheese sandwich at lunch instead of their choice from the menu.

Right now, the only way to collect bad debts is to withhold awarding a student’s diploma until the matter is cleared. But often, families move away before then.

School districts across the country have been dealing with the problem, and the school board has been looking at guidelines suggested by the School Nutrition Association on potential solutions.

One idea is to e-mail a simple note to parents indicating the amount the student owes. That would be followed, if necessary, by persistent phone calls to parents at home and work.

Another idea would be to charge the regular price for an ungrilled cheese sandwich, milk and fruit until the student reimburses the district.

Some school districts have experimented with stickers or stamps to remind kids to let their parents know that they owe money. Others have tried rubber bands on students’ wrists, but some have said that approach can stigmatize students among their peers.

Another approach is to have the PTA create special accounts for students where they can borrow meal money.

The difficulty for the cash-strapped district is how to collect while still providing meals for youngsters who may depend on the cafeteria for their only meal.

“We know it’s a hard time for many families on South Whidbey, but we can’t allow fees to go uncollected,” said District Superintendent Fred McCarthy.

“All students should be able to receive a meal, regardless of financial standing,” McCarthy said. “While a strong message should be sent to parents, we certainly don’t want to penalize kids who may need to eat in our cafeterias.”

Whatever is done to solve the problem, the district wants to treat all students with dignity and respect, maintain a positive experience for children in the cafeterias, and promote the parents’ responsibility for meal payments.

“We’re looking at solutions that are both timely and proactive to see these charges are paid, because nonpayment has a negative effect on the district’s financial health,” McCarthy said. “Within the next two months, we expect to have a plan in place.”

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