Published: Apr 14, 2012 05:15 PM
Modified: Apr 14, 2012 05:11 PM
Some families in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School district have been neglecting to pay for their childrens school lunches.
Quite a few of them, it turns out. Unpaid meal bills in the district are expected to reach about $45,000 by the end of this school year. Thats a lot of fish sticks.
The district has tried to get the delinquent accounts paid, to the tune of hundreds of phone calls made, thousands of letters sent home and mailings to all parents with students who have accrued balances over $25, according to staff.
Many parents, no doubt, respond to those efforts and pay off their kids tabs. Still, the balance sheet is $45k in the hole. What to do?
The school board discussed the idea of having collection agencies pursue the unpaid bills, but decided in the end to forgive the debts instead. The board will appropriate the money from the districts fund balance.
Which is another way of saying the taxpayers will cover all those delinquent accounts.
Not surprisingly, that rubs some of said taxpayers the wrong way. Why should parents who faithfully pay their childrens lunch bills also be hit up to pay the tab for parents who dont?
Valid point. But the situation is more complicated than it might at first appear, and the solution requires some finesse, as well.
There are programs in place to feed children from low-income households. Kids from families that make less than 130 percent of federal poverty level (which is $23,050 for a family of four) qualify for free school meals, and those whose families make less than 185 percent of federal poverty level qualify for reduced price ones.
That is, of course, an arbitrary line. A family with a gross yearly income of $42,640 qualifies for reduced lunches; a family that makes $10 more than that does not.
Some parents truly do have trouble just getting the bills paid and food on the table. And some no doubt would qualify for free or reduced-cost meals but fail to get the application forms filled out.
One study found that more than half of the school systems polled reported rising rates of delinquent meal accounts in recent years, as families have been hit by the recession.
Some schools go the hardball route of employing collection agencies or small-claims court.
Quite a few employ the technique suggested last week by Chapel Hill-Carrboro superintendent Tom Forcella: Provide kids with unpaid accounts a simple lunch of a cheese or peanut-butter sandwich rather than the hot lunch everybody else gets.
Nobody seems to have come up with a truly effective solution. But a few things should guide our thinking: Withholding meals is not an option. Dont punish kids for the actions, or inactions, of their parents. And before considering heavy-handed tactics, do everything possible to help parents meet their obligations, by ensuring that they have information about and access to the necessary forms.
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