Schools provide lunch debt answers

By Ruthann Carr, correspondent

A story about a $40,000 school cafeteria debt in the July 19 issue of the Fluvanna Review prompted much comment on social media.

At the July 11 School Board meeting the Board directed Superintendent Chuck Winkler to look into the cost of debt collection.

The $40,000 debt was incurred during the 2017-18 school year. Winkler reported that every year there is an unpaid balance on students’ accounts, but the $40,000 debt was one of the highest. By law, schools can carry the debt for one year before it must be discharged. That means money from the school budget is used to pay off the debt.

Many on Facebook wondered if they could donate money to defray the debt. Others asked how the schools could legally go after parents for a debt their children racked up without their knowledge. Still others wondered if the school notified parents of what is owed.

The Review sent those questions and more to the Fluvanna school administration. The answers come from Winkler and Gwendolyn Jones, food service supervisor.

How many students made up the debt?

605 total = 593 students, 12 staff

What is the range of the debt?

$.05 – $552.75

What is the average debt?

$500+                     5 students

$400 to $499        10 students

$300 to $399        18 students

$200 to $299        25 students

$100 to $199        58 students

$50 to $99             80 students

$25 to $49             82 students and 1 staff

$20 to $24             18 students and 2 staff

$10 to $19             60 students and 3 staff

$0.01 to $9.99      237 students and 6 staff

Average debt = $64.40

What percentage of the debt is made up of free lunch, reduced-lunch and full price students?

72 students = free lunch

81 students = reduced lunch

439 students = full price

If no snacks may be charged, how can free and reduced lunch students owe money?

At the beginning of each year some students haven’t yet been certified as free so they may charge lunch until the paperwork is processed. Once certified, the debt is abolished but it still shows up on the books for a year.

Does the school have a way of informing parents they owe money? How often is it done?

Information below comes from School Board Policy JHCH School Meals and Snacks.

  • Emailing notices to parents/guardians weekly if the account balance is $5 or less, when there is a valid email on file. (Page 2)
  • All parents/guardians receive account balance letters quarterly via U.S. mail. (Page 3)
  • At the end of every school year a letter will be generated by the food services office and mailed to the parent/guardian requesting payment of any past due accounts. (Page 4)

Parents can add money to their kids’ accounts online. Can they also see the balance?

Yes. Parents may check cafeteria balances and purchases, receive low-balance alerts and set up automatic payments through MySchoolBucks. This information and a link to MySchoolBucks is listed on the home page of the food service website. It is also listed on every negative balance letter and email that is sent to the household.

Can the schools send an alert when an account goes into the red?

The school emails notices to parents/guardians weekly if the account balances is $5 or less, when there is a valid email on file. (Policy JHCH, Page 2)

The schools do not deny food purchases to children. Is that a law?

It is not a law to refuse to deny a child a meal. This is determined by the school district. Only students approved for free meals legally cannot be denied a meal, even if they have a negative balance (a negative balance may have accrued from a previous year or prior to being approved for free meals).

Parents can write notes at the beginning of the year stating that no extras should be sold to their children. Some parents commented those rules aren’t adhered to.

Parents may request that notes regarding snacks be added to their child’s account. They are adhered to at all times. We request that parents keep the note as simple as possible to avoid misunderstanding the request. We have not had any parents contact us stating that we did not adhere to their note.

It may be right to hold parents responsible for a debt their child incurred without their knowledge. But if parents direct the schools not to sell to their child, is it right to hold the parent responsible for any debt incurred?

Since every parent receives the uncollectable meals charge policy, I would think that would be enough to allow us to charge them for the meals (of course legally I don’t know if it is). If it is decided that parents can request us to deny their child a meal then I think the financial responsibility of the parent would change.

This is what is currently written in regards to denying/charging meals.

Food service website: “We will not tell the student that they need money in their account unless the information is requested. If a student is purchasing lunch then no additional conversation regarding the account needs to be made. All students will receive lunch without question. No alternative meals are presented.”

School Board Policy JHCH: “The Fluvanna County School Board recognizes that students who eat breakfast and lunch benefit nutritionally and educationally. The Fluvanna County School Board strives to protect the financial stability of the school nutrition program and the concerns of the child by offering a reimbursable breakfast and lunch daily to any student, regardless of an immediate ability to pay.”

Some on Facebook said they would gladly donate to a fund to pay off the debt. Is this possible?

Yes. If a donation is received I ask the giver how they would like to have the money applied. In most cases a lottery system is used to choose a child’s account to apply the funds, unless a specific name is given.

When the School Board discusses cafeteria debt it seems as if most of the debt is incurred by those who can pay. Is that true?

There is no way for anyone to know if a family can “afford” to pay for meals. I can only use the free/reduced meal status to determine eligible income as it relates to qualifying for that status. In 2017-18, 112 applications were processed; 21 were denied.

When a child graduates or leaves Fluvanna schools with a positive balance on their cafeteria account are they refunded that money?

I have not reached out to any families regarding a positive balance on an account once the child has left FCPS. Parents typically call to request a refund or they request a transfer of the balance to another account.

There are 114 students inactive with a positive balance totaling $623.86. The balances range from $0.01 to $47.90. I have no problem with trying to locate the parents (this balance is from several years) and refunding the money. I will also be sure to add this to the end-of-year procedures. The money would be refunded at the beginning of the next school year as we do not hold cash during the summer.

Another school district does not allow students to charge snacks and texts parents when students charge. Can Fluvanna do this?

We also do not allow students to charge snacks, only reimbursable meals.

Email notices are from food services sent to parents/guardians weekly if the account balance is $5 or less, when there is a valid email on file. MySchoolBucks allows parent to choose their own notification method and amount.

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