Published: Apr 10, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Apr 10, 2012 07:07 PM
CHAPEL HILL - Delinquent parents owe the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools tens of thousands of dollars for their children’s unpaid cafeteria meals.
At its March 15 meeting, school board members discussed whether to forgive almost $40,000 in unpaid meal accounts and transfer the expense to taxpayers, or to send parents’ unpaid bills to a collection agency.
The board voted 4-2 to seek appropriations to clear the balance, almost all of which is owed by parents who don’t qualify – or haven’t applied for – federal free or reduced lunch programs.
“There have been hundreds of phone calls made, thousands of letters sent home and mailings to all parents with students who have accrued balances over $25.00,” according to a staff report.
It is the district’s policy not to refuse meals to elementary or middle school children who do not have money for lunch. Students who cannot pay receive a standard school lunch charged to an account in the name of their parents or guardians.
Assistant Superintendent Todd Lofrese said some families owe the district more than $600. Balances are carried over year to year.
But using collection agencies to pursue the delinquent parents struck some board members as setting up an antagonistic relationship between families and schools.
On the other hand, some board members argued that it was unfair to let people off the hook and have taxpayers pick up the tab. Parents who qualify can apply for free or reduced lunch programs managed by state and federal government.
“If you need the parent’s attention, I think a collection agency is the way to get it,” board member Mike Kelley said. “If there’s a financial hardship, let’s get them the forms.”
Kelley and Michelle Brownstein opposed the fund balance appropriation. Annetta Streater was absent from the meeting.
LoFrese said schools in the district do a good job of identifying families that qualify for meal programs through family specialists, child nutrition officers and social workers. Being above the poverty line does not disqualify everyone from financial stressors, he added.
“The cutoff for free and reduced lunch is a very low number,” LoFrese said. “There are families that are just above the line … that are in equally stressed financial situations.”
Staff members, who collectively owe about $600, won’t be let off the hook so easily. LoFrese said those unpaid debts can be collected through payroll deductions.
Unpaid accounts at the end of 2011 totaled $30,266. The rest of the $45,000 fund appropriation will cover the estimated amount needed to close out balances in June, 2012.
Superintendent Tom Forcella proposed changing the meals given to students who couldn’t pay (and weren’t on free or reduced lunch plans). The idea is that a kid who gets stuck eating a plain cheese sandwich would pester his or her parents for the lunch money.
It was a solution that proved effective in another school district where Forcella once worked, he said.
Board Chairwoman Mia Day Burroughs led it. “I actually think the cheese sandwich method is a more humane, simpler and more elegant public policy… that will change the incentives,” she said.
Jamezetta Bedford, who pointed out that this year’s unpaid balances are on a trajectory to be well in excess of amounts the district has termed acceptable, reminded the group that feeding a child is one of the basic duties of parenting.
“If you’re not filling out forms and refusing to feed your child, that’s neglect,” Bedford said.