Unpaid lunch tabs grow as IW looks for ways to collect

Published 8:14 pm Tuesday, January 8, 2019

By Frederic Lee

Staff writer 

The Isle of Wight County School Board is grappling with a growing debt of roughly $41,000, gradually accumulated over the years from the cost of unpaid public school meals. 

According to Rachel Yates, Isle of Wight County schools executive director of budget and finance, about $13,000 in school meal debt was accrued in 2017 alone. By the end of this past September, $5,000 more had been added in 2018. 

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“We have to pay for this,” said Board Member Jackie Carr at the Dec. 13 School Board meeting. “At the end of the year, it has to come from something, so what are we going to give up in order to pay this deficit?” she said.

Carr stressed the concept of frugality during the meeting.  {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

“I think it was last year we started paying for field trips for all of our students,” said Carr later on at the meeting. “If we have to take money to pay our lunch debt, we may have to take it from field trip money,” she said, adding that, “something’s got to give in.”

In terms of the growing debt, Susan Goetz, county director of curriculum and instruction, said that for a number of years, when a student would go through the lunch line and happened to owe money, his or her standard lunch would be taken away and thrown into the garbage. The discarded meal was then replaced with an alternative lunch, usually a cheese sandwich, a piece of fruit and milk. Goetz said angry phone calls from parents ended that practice a few years ago, and after that, the debts started to increase substantially.

On older grade levels, Goetz said it’s easier to recover debts from those students due to the higher frequency of school-sponsored activities. She recalled working for a high school that required students to pay off their debts before they could apply for a parking pass, or buy tickets to the homecoming dance. “It’s a little harder with the elementary (kids),” said Goetz. 

The School Board also emphasized that opportunities like field trips couldn’t be restricted based on debt due to their educational nature. 

The policy change — which had its first read at the Dec. 13 meeting — states that a call to social services could occur if a student’s parent(s) regularly fails to provide meal money or send food to school with the student if he or she doesn’t qualify for free or reduced meals. The document also currently states that a student carrying a negative balance of $20.00 or more is not permitted to accrue any additional debts but may buy meals with cash on hand.  

“Some students don’t have lunch money. They just don’t have it,” said School Board member Alvin Wilson, adding that if a child were to be singled out because of that, his or her self-esteem could suffer greatly. 

“It’s against the law to single them out,” Carr responded to Wilson; “We cannot do that, so nobody’s singled out, and there’s also free and reduced lunch opportunities for every family in the division, so if they fill out an application and are approved, they get free or reduced lunch.” 

Earlier this year, Gov. Ralph Northam signed House Bill 50— nicknamed the “lunch shaming” bill — into law. The law prohibits the singling out of an unpaying pupil by handstamp or wristband. The law also prohibits instructors and other staff from making students do a chore as punishment for not having lunch money. 

Carr further vouched for creative, out-of-the-box thinking in order to resolve the debt. She referenced one community that took advantage of a GoFundMe.com campaign to pay for school lunch debts. GoFundMe is an online fundraising platform designed for the purpose of pitching an idea or situation to solicit donations. GoFundMe campaigns have been used to fund various expenses like major surgeries and secondary education, as well as more frivolous things. 

Carr also introduced the idea of an adopt-a-child program that would be specifically set up for school meals. “It’s a problem that we have to talk about, that we have to address, and it’s going to have to be paid for one way or the other,” she said. 

In early 2018, the school division had discussed hiring a collection agency to recover the lunch debts. Isle of Wight County schools Spokesperson Lynn Briggs said that although the School Board hasn’t approved any specific actions, the topic is on the agenda for the Jan. 10 meeting.   {/mprestriction}