Resident Shares Ideas on Lunch Debt Issue with School Board

The Aug. 29 school board meeting began with resident Carolyn Garvey approaching the board to express her thoughts about a topic at the previous school board meeting: lunch debt in the district.

It was explained at the last School Board meeting that the district had ended the 2016-2017 school year $15,000 worth of debt, $11,000 of which coming from families who were not a part of the free or reduced school lunch program. At the meeting, Londonderry School District’s Business Administrator Peter Curro proposed “beefing up” the language in the school handbook to include that students who face any debt – be it library or lunch – would not be allowed to participate in end of the year festivities. At the end of the August 8 meeting, it was decided that Curro would prepare a policy that would offer more severe consequences for the families who don’t pay, in addition to the alteration for the handbook.

Garvey said she has a daughter who just started her junior year at Londonderry High School, and when she read an article in the Londonderry Times about the dining debt in the district she was bothered. After reading an editorial in The Londonderry Times about the same subject, she was prompted to go to the Aug. 29 meeting and voice her opinion,

“I understand that there is a process for parents to apply for free or reduced lunch programs. That’s fine. I don’t have any grievance with those parents who do what they are required to do and need to do. Likewise, I suspect that this town is still small enough, at least for the time being, where the schools are generally familiar with the families that might be undergoing some kind of crisis for whatever reason and might need some assistance. So I really don’t have any gripe or grievance with those individuals, and I just want to make that clear,” she began.

“If they [the parents] have not applied for the appropriate financial assistance then presumably they have the ability to pay and they should be paying. I should not be paying for them. I get up, I go to work, I pay my taxes, I pay my daughter’s school lunch account; I expect other parents who have the ability to pay to do the same,” she said.

At that point, Board Member Steve Young stepped down because he “doesn’t read that document,” referring to The Londonderry Times article Garvey frequently referenced.

Garvey was under the impression that the only resolution that was to be explored was the change of wording in the handbook, and she inquired to the board whether a policy would also be discussed.

“I do not believe that strongly-worded language in a handbook is going to have any meaningful effect upon parents who are already taking advantage of a system. I think the Board needs to establish, within whatever parameters are available to it, consequences for parents that do not pay,” Garvey said.

School Board Chair Dan Lekas explained that at the next meeting, Curro would present both a change to the handbook and a new policy on how to proceed if a family refuses to pay their school lunch debt.

Garvey offered a suggestion of something the district could legally do, without overtly punishing the students:  settle the issues in small claims court. This would be relatively “simple and quick” and would get the parents’ attention, according to Garvey.

“I do not think a child should suffer the consequences of a parents’ irresponsibility,” she continued. “I don’t think a child should be told you can either eat or you can go to Canobie Lake with your class. I don’t think that that’s appropriate, I think that the consequences should flow directly to the parents who are taking advantage…the Board has to actually put some teeth in a policy to make sure that $15,000 of our taxpayers’ dollars are not funding people who can otherwise pay for such a thing.”

Lekas thanked her for sharing her opinion once she finished speaking, and Board Member Nancy Hendricks expressed that this topic was one she too was “chewing on” since the last School Board meeting.

While she is glad the Board will be looking to amend the handbook and add a more encompassing passage about students and families paying off their debts, “we’ve got to get some policy in place so that we’re not in this position in a year.”

As far as the handbook goes, Hendricks said she doesn’t “want to be in a position where we hold kids hostage,” and believes that the responsibility should lie more heavily with the parents – which is why a policy would be more conducive than just changing the wording in the handbook.

Lekas reiterated that the Board intends to look at both the wording in the handbook and potential policies surrounding the issue and discuss the possibilities, neutrally.

Curro will present possible solutions to this issue at the next School Board meeting on September 12.

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