School lunch debt is up sharply

Published 7:02 pm Tuesday, January 15, 2019

76 percent increase since school opened in the fall

By Frederic Lee

Staff writer 

The Isle of Wight County School Board learned Thursday that since September, countywide school lunch debt has grown by another $31,000, according to Isle of Wight County Executive Director of Budget and Finance Rachel Yates. 

The lunch debt now sits at $72,000, up from $41,000 in September — a 76-percent increase in a matter of months. 

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The School Board voted unanimously Thursday to eliminate the $20 credit limit and add specific mechanisms for recouping the money. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}


Elementary school students with a school lunch debt of more than $10 would have restricted access to other school activities, such as school photos and dances. 

At the middle school level, those same restrictions would apply, as well as sports, band and debate activities. Ditto for the high school level, to also include restrictions on school-issued iPad use, parking passes and graduation. 

Before the new debt figure was revealed, two members of the public came forward at the Jan. 10 School Board meeting to voice grievances about the already-reported $41,000 school lunch debt.

“The superintendent assembles a high-priced, intelligent staff,” said Isle of Wight County resident and former School Board member Herb De Groft during public comments. “If they can’t come up with the idea of how to solve this, then by golly, this school system’s really got a problem, because if you can’t manage $41,000, how can you manage $60 million-plus?”

The Isle of Wight County School operating budget for fiscal year 2019 — approved by the Board of Supervisors last May — is based on a budget of about $59 million. The local contribution is $25.8 million. 

“This is a national crisis, and it’s become a national crisis because no one wants to deny a child a meal,” said Isle of Wight County Schools Superintendent Jim Thornton later at the meeting. 

“You can go on Google and … read for weeks the problems that school divisions have on this sort of thing,” said School Board Member Jackie Carr. “We’re dealing with a growing problem. It’s not just Isle of Wight County,” she said. 

Recent reports from Austin, Texas, Washington, D.C. and Cranston, R.I., among others, point to a nationwide school lunch debt problem.     

 “If we do nothing, that just says that we don’t have to pay for lunch, and that’s unacceptable, because our debt is rising,” said School Board member Kirstin Cook. She then altered the language of the policy to allow for other ways to recover debts other than the ones specifically listed.   

“I’m wondering if we have families who qualify for free or reduced meals but they fail to fill out the necessary paperwork,” said Carr, adding that if so, “when we contact these families who have a growing debt, certainly someone (should) offer, ‘Do you need help in filling out the form?’” she said, adding that “if the parents aren’t taking advantage of that, we might take that extra step to make sure they understand this is available,” said Carr.  {/mprestriction}