End-of-year lunch money reprieve

Published 6:45 pm Tuesday, May 28, 2019

By Frederic Lee

Staff writer

Isle of Wight County Schools reversed a decision to restrict elementary school students with a meal debt over $10 from Field Day last Thursday after a Suffolk resident sought to pay those down. 

Previously, a letter had been sent out to parents stating that students with a debt of $10 or more could be kept from participating in extracurricular events including Field Day, according to Isle of Wight County schools spokesperson Lynn Briggs.

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Field Day takes place in county elementary schools near the end of the school year, and is a day of “fun-filled” activities involving physical movement and friendly competition, according to School Board Chairperson Vicky Hulick.  {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

The county public schools’ combined meal debt reached a high of $72,000 in January, and by the Feb. 14 School Board meeting, it had been brought down to about $57,000 through tactics including robocalls and letters sent to parents. While the debt currently sits at $50,100, a May 23 announcement from the schools states that it’s been hovering around that amount despite increased attempts to recoup the funds. 

The school district’s decision to allow students carrying a $10 or more meal debt to participate in Field Day came after Suffolk resident Karen Cornett started a GoFundMe campaign as a fundraising measure to tackle the lunch debt, Cornett having seen a posting on Facebook about how students in county public schools wouldn’t be allowed to participate in Field Day if they had an existing lunch debt. 

Isle of Wight County Schools’ officials were grappling with how to handle the debt several months ago, as it surged from $41,000 to $72,000 — a 75.6-percent increase — in five months. Following the increase, the School Board voted to implement added measures and restrictions based on the amount of lunch debt a particular student has. 

At the Jan. 10 School Board meeting, members voted to implement a procedure to contact parents once a lunch debt reaches $10, notifying them that their child will be unable to participate in certain supplementary school activities until the balance is paid.

The current policy also states that when meals debt reaches $25, the school system’s superintendent becomes involved in the collection efforts. At $50, county officials step in to collect the debt. 

Cornett, who has friends with students in Isle of Wight County Schools, said in an interview on May 23 that she had children in the Suffolk public school system, including at Pioneer Elementary School, which hosted their Field Day a couple of weeks ago. When she heard about the restriction for elementary-level students in Isle of Wight County, she said, “I imagine it has to be really devastating for them.”  

“I remember Field Day being the best day of the year,” said Cornett, adding that, “If the parents can’t pay, they can’t pay,” and that young children shouldn’t be penalized for their parent’s failure or inability to pay the debt.  

“They can’t control that their parents can’t afford their lunches,” said Cornett.

While the goal for Cornett’s GoFundMe campaign is listed at $70,000, actual donations were at $420 on May 28, and Cornett said that she will probably take a check with whatever funds that have been raised to the School Board offices at 800 W. Main St. and designate them to either Windsor or Smithfield high schools. Graduation participation is listed in the lunch debt policy as an activity that students could be held from if their debt is higher than $10.   {/mprestriction}