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Schools see red as lunch debts rise

Law to eliminate ‘lunch shaming’ leads to increase in funds owed

Student lunch account debts increased significantly in a short amount of time as an unintended consequence of a state law enacted in 2017 to eliminate “lunch shaming.”

Recently, in attempts to recover $22,000 from families who owed lunch debt, Wyoming Valley West School District in Luzerne County officials drew heavy criticism for sending home letters warning that in court — “the result may be your child being taken from your home and placed in foster care.” Days later, the district accepted a businessman’s donation to pay off what’s owed.

Altoona Area school solicitor Carl Beard said the Wyoming Valley West School District was dead wrong for threatening families with whisking children away to foster care if lunch debts were not paid.

“I like to believe no solicitor looked at that letter before it went out. I would never let anything like that go out from a school district. It is such bad form,” Beard said.

At Altoona Area, families owe $25,652 in lunch debt, Superintendent Charles Prijatelj said. Students aren’t allowed to walk at graduation without paying.

“We do monthly phone calls and send home balance due letters,” Prijatelj stated in an email. “In the end, students are not allowed to process at graduation without paying off their lunch balances.”

Altoona Area’s lunch debt grew from $8,000 to $25,652 since the 2017 lunch shaming law change.

The new law prohibits schools from denying a school breakfast or lunch to any student who requests one but does not have the money to pay for the meal at the time of service or in his or her meal account.

Tyrone Area’s lunch debt is about $8,000 across the district’s student body with a couple accounts approaching $1,000, said district Business Manager John Clark.

Since the anti-lunch shaming law, the debt has grown about 25 percent, he said.

“That debt becomes debt of the general fund. So in the end, the taxing body as a whole ends up bearing that debt when those accounts aren’t paid off,” Clark said. “Prior to the law change, we limited elementary school students’ lunch selection if they owed funds. At the senior high we just didn’t serve them lunch. Now everyone can have all of the lunch selections.”

Clark said the legislative intent behind the law change was to avoid shaming students whose families were having difficult times financially.

“At the same time, the new law de-incentivized paying for meals or paying off debt,” he said.

Communication is sent out to the parent when the student owes for five or more meals. The school will follow up with two additional direct attempts to collect the debt through written communication.

If there has been no response from the parent within 10 days of the final notice with an attempt to pay the debt off or make prearranged payments to that effect, Clark said the debt is turned over to the district magistrate for the collection along with filing and court fees.

“About every two months we have two or three families or accounts we turn over to magistrate to attempt collect,” Clark said.

The magistrate decides a payment plan for the family with the means they have, but never, Clark said — never — does a family get threatened anything that would verge on neglect or foster care as the Wyoming Valley West School District’s letter threatened.

Sen. Bob Casey tweeted in response to the news out of Wyoming Valley West: “No child should have to imagine the horror of being ripped away from their parents because their family is struggling economically. These letters were callous and should never have happened.”

Any student eligible for the federal free and reduced lunch program shouldn’t have a lunch balance, Prijatelj said.

Prijatelj said when a student’s family sends in the paperwork and is approved for free and reduced lunch, the lunch balance is wiped clean.

And at Tyrone Area, Clark said, paperwork is included with letters to delinquent account holders to apply for the federal free and reduced price lunch program.

“Every time we send info out that there is a debt owed, we are also including free and reduced meal applications, saying ‘this is something you need to consider,'” Clark said. We try to make sure they are aware — beyond notification at the beginning of the year — that the free and reduced lunch program is there.”

Claysburg-Kimmel School District Superintendent Darren McLaurin echoed Clark.

“We feel our lunches are affordable. We currently charge $1.25 for breakfast; $2 for an elementary lunch; $2.15 for a secondary lunch,” McLaurin wrote in an email.

He said the total debt across lunch accounts in the district is $1,257.

“Some students may be eligible for free and reduced lunch, but either they do not know they’re eligible or they did not fill out the form. In these cases, we work very hard to assist parents that are eligible for a free or reduced lunch to qualify for those services by offering assistance in completing and submitting the application,” McLaurin wrote. “If it is a chronic issue, we reach out individually to the parents and try to work out a solution which can include an affordable repayment schedule”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.

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