School district officials agree that no child should go hungry, but that often leaves school districts with thousands of dollars of unpaid bills for meals served.
Tri-State school districts use different methods to handle the sensitive issue of students showing up to school with no lunch money — allowing them to charge the meal up to a certain amount; giving students an alternative option; or having them fill out an IOU form before eating.
Metropolitan School District of Mount Vernon food service supervisor Thelma Sebree acted shocked at the thought of not feeding a child and quickly wondered why anyone would do that.
“We take care of our kids, that’s all there is to it,” she said. “We’re not going to let anyone go hungry.”
Sebree said after a student forgets to bring lunch money for consecutive days, and parents haven’t sent money to cover previous costs, the student receives an alternative lunch instead of the menu item. An alternative lunch consists of a peanut butter and jelly or cheese sandwich, fruit and milk. A similar procedure is used in the Warrick County School Corp. and at South Gibson School Corp.
However, students in the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. don’t receive an alternative lunch after consecutive days of not paying. They always receive what is on the menu that day, EVSC spokeswoman Marsha Jackson said. The student’s meal account is charged, giving them a negative balance that accumulates.
As of Thursday, Jackson said about $36,000 is owed to EVSC for this school year by students who forgot lunch money.
Sebree declined to comment on the amount of money Mt. Vernon students owe this school year. However, she said the debt does not follow a student to the next year or to another school.
“The PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) helps take care of elementary,” Sebree said. “It’s taken care of, it doesn’t follow a child because we’re going to feed that kid regardless … We have no big carry-overs from one year to the next.”
Money owed for unpaid lunches
Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp.: about $36,000
Warrick County School Corp.: Last year, $34,000-$36,000, this year about $4,000
South Gibson School Corp.: $4,199
MSD of Mt. Vernon: declined to comment
Free and reduced participation
EVSC: 59 percent
Warrick County School Corp.: 33 percent of students
South Gibson School Corp.: 26 percent of students
MSD of Mt. Vernon: declined to comment
Source: School districts, figures are as of Jan. 3.
The meal charge policy for Warrick County School Corp. is available for view under the Food and Nutrition tab at http://www.warrick.k12.in.us/. This time last year, WCSC food and nutrition director Shenae Rowe said between $34,000 to $36,000 was owed by students who didn’t pay for lunch. At that time, more than 200 letters were sent monthly, without success, to collect the money. As of Jan. 3, about $4,000 is owed in unpaid lunches and Rowe said part of that is uncollected debt from last year.
Adults and high school students in Warrick County are not permitted to charge food or drink. And while charging meals is “strongly discouraged,” middle, Tecumseh Junior High School (TJHS) and elementary school students may do so because, according to the district’s website, managing money is a part of the learning process. A la carte items, except milk, are not sold to students with a negative account balance.
Middle school and TJHS students may charge up to $10. After that limit is reached, or the account debt remains unpaid for 30 days, no meals or alternative meals are provided. Elementary students may charge up to $20, and after the limit is reached or the debt remains unpaid for 30 days, an alternative lunch of a peanut butter sandwich or cheese sandwich, fruit and milk is provided.
Once the debt exceeds $10 or $20 and is unpaid for 30 days, it is turned over to the Warrick County School Corp. attorney for collection.
Rowe said the alternative lunch is not handed to students in the lunch line. The exchange is in the morning, when teachers are notified the student doesn’t have money in their account. The child calls a parent and asks them to bring a lunch or money, or they receive an alternative meal. Then the student gets a sack lunch, places it in his locker and returns to class. They retrieve the lunch from their locker at lunchtime like every other child.
“It’s really as discreet as we possibly could do it because we do not want to punish the kids in any way,” Rowe said. “But our charge issues were so out of control and that’s why this policy came in place. We had to do something.”
Rowe said only a handful of alternative lunches have been handed out this year, so the charge policy is effective.
According to South Gibson School Corp. Assistant Superintendent Tim Armstrong, students can charge up to $20 before they begin receiving an alternative lunch of a peanut butter or cheese sandwich, fruit or vegetable and milk.
As of Jan. 4, SGSC has served 42 alternative lunches this school year, and Armstrong said there is $4,199.43 in negative balances. He said the school corporation works with parents on a case-by-case basis.
“This is only a snapshot and changes each and every day,” Armstrong said. “Balances follow the student from year to year, both positive and negative. As a very last resort, the account is turned over for collection after all other methods have failed.”
Positive and negative balances also roll over and follow EVSC students to whatever school they may transfer, Jackson said. EVSC started using a new process last year. Connect-ED makes parents aware of the debt owed.
“The idea was to notify them early enough that the balance is manageable, rather than waiting until it got so high they couldn’t pay it,” Jackson said.
A Connect-ED call is sent home when a child reaches a $10 negative balance. This call happens usually once a month. For higher amounts, written notices are sent through a child’s classroom to take home. When no attempts are made to make payments or set up a payment schedule, the amount may be turned over to collections, Jackson said.
“We do not require students to make full payment when they call,” she said. “Payment arrangements can be set up so that the entire balance does not need to be paid in a lump sum.”
The food and nutrition department in Warrick County sends two collection or warning letters home with a student before litigation is filed. After the account is turned over to an attorney, the district’s website said payment arrangements and collections occur only through the attorney’s office. Attorney fees are no less than $200 per account.
As much as Rowe dislikes the charge policy, she said it has been necessary for them to continue to function successfully.
“I don’t know if most people realize, but student nutrition departments at school corporations are self supporting so they rely on the money that the parents provide,” she said. “They don’t get money from the school corportation. So when we knew we had $36,000 out, I felt it would be irresponsible if we let that money continue to go unaccounted for.”
FREE AND REDUCED
All four school districts use an electronic account system in which parents deposit money and the student enters a PIN number to pay for their meal. This system helps track which students owe money, and also makes discreet a student’s participation in the free and reduced lunch program.
EVSC serves about 16,500 school lunches and more than 5,000 breakfasts a day to students in the school corporation. Out of those, about 59 percent of EVSC students participate in the free and reduced program. Jackson admitted more people could probably use it, especially at the high school level, but many are qualified and already receive assistance. She said the district makes information on the program easily available to ensure every family receives the form at the start of the school year.
“We have also repeatedly let families know that if their financial situation has changed during the year, they can apply at any time,” Jackson said.
Sebree declined to release the number of students in the MSD of Mt. Vernon on the program.
Overall, 26 percent of South Gibson students participate in the free and reduced lunch program.
Thirty-three percent of students use the program in Warrick County. Rowe said in her 10 years with the school corporation that’s the highest percentage. However, she said the computerized system makes it discreet for the students on the program because even cafeteria cashiers and managers don’t know which students use it.
She said parents can now apply for the program online in the privacy of their own home at lunchapp.com. Rowe said the program “is so much different from what it used to be a decade ago.”
A pilot program at EVSC’s North High School requires a student who forgets lunch money to set their lunch tray aside, go to the office and fill out an IOU form before they are able to charge the meal. Jackson said discussion last year centered on how to reduce the amounts of money owed to the district and the reasons people owe money. She said the pilot program helps with a few issues.
“It helps with our accounting process and that was one of the main reasons we started doing it,” she said. “But, as a by-product, it also is a little less convenient to charge it, and what we found is that lots of times kids would say ‘oh, I don’t have any money can I just charge it?’ When you asked them about it they would say, ‘oh well yeah, I have some money so here.’ So they didn’t want to use the money for that purpose, but they actually had some. Now that’s not everybody, but we found quite a few.”
In a little over a month after the trial began, North cut its charges in half. Jackson isn’t sure the length of the pilot, but said if it continues to be effective at North, it may be implemented at other EVSC schools.
Despite the many positives of the electronic system the school corporations use, Rowe said some people may use it in an incorrect way.
“As wonderful as the prepaid systems are, that’s kind of what’s been difficult if you compare it to a credit card,” Rowe said. “A lot of people use it as a charge account versus what it was meant for, a debit account where you put money in it and you take money out. Like with your own credit card, it’s so easy to just put in a number and sign your name, and I kind of think it’s made charging a lot easier.”