School Board Addresses Students’ Dining Debt

Peter Curro, Londonderry School District’s business administrator, and Amanda Venezia, dining service director for the district, approached the Londonderry School Board at its meeting on August 8 in an effort to bring to light the “significant increase” in debt accrued from students not paying for school lunches.

Normally, the district ends each year with a dining services debt amount of around $5,000; this year, the debt is nearly $15,000. The write off for the district, or bad-debts as Curro called them, are from the students that are leaving the district – for example, graduating seniors – and amount to only $458, leaving a negative balance of $14,000 and change leading into the 2017-18 school year.

Almost $1,100 of the debt is for the free lunch program students, $1,100 for the reduced lunch students, and nearly $11,000 for all other students. Of the $11,000, $8,835 is from a total of 71 students whose debt ranges from $50 to $800.

The school board was shocked by the numbers.

“This is a huge number,” said Board Member Leitha Reilly, “which would tell me one of two things: we either have a huge problem in this town with economic issues, could be, or we have an abuse problem.”

When Curro told the members that one family owes nearly $800 between their two enrolled students, Reilly said, “that’s debt collection status.”

Board Member Nancy Hendricks ruminated on the challenge a problem like this poses: “This is a tough one for us, or at least it is for me, because we certainly can’t have kids going without lunch, by any stretch; however, having said that, we can’t continually ask our taxpayers to fund lunches that parents simply won’t pay.”

Curro amended that of course there would be exceptions for families going through a hard time, which will be dealt with on a building-to-building level.

“If we know who the exceptions are,” Reilly asked, “I’d like to know why we’re being so soft on those who are clearly abusing the system.”

While the lunch providers should never deny a child a lunch, Reilly believes the punishment should be harder on those students who won’t pay; for example, taking away sport and extracurricular privileges.

Tyler Cullen, who represents the students’ perspective on the board, also believed the punishment should be harsher than potentially just taking away end of the year privileges, at least for seniors: “When I get older and let’s say one year I decide not to pay my taxes, does the IRS write it off at the end of the year or do they come after me? I’m going into my senior year, I’m going to be an adult, legally, in like six months – if we don’t try to encourage some kind of personal responsibility to those who are actually adults, because most seniors by the time they graduate will be 18, then what’s the message we’re trying to send? If people don’t learn now that decisions they make have real life consequences, then when are they going to learn it?”

Debt can still build for the students on the free and reduced lunch programs, depending on when they hand in their applications. The application from the previous year is only eligible for a 30-day roll over, so if students do not submit the current year’s application within the first 30 days of school, then the student might start to build up debt. Even when his or her application goes through, the student does not receive free a la carte items, so when they charge items not on the lunch menu, the cost gets added to their account.

Venezia currently sends out weekly or biweekly alert emails to families for students whose balances become low or reach the negative, depending on the size of their students’ debts.

While some districts employ an “alternative lunch program,” the Londonderry School District has no parameters on how to handle or discipline those students–and their families–who don’t pay their balances after being alerted. Venezia gave the example of the Goffstown School District: after a child receives two unpaid for meals, the child is offered an “alternative lunch” and still charged a meal fee which is to be expected paid eventually. Instead of a cheeseburger or a hot dog, the student is given something along the lines of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich–something that is still considered a redeemable meal of nutritional value by the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service.

Curro and Venezia wanted to stay away from the alternative lunch program, and proposed changing the wording in the student handbook regarding debts. Up until now, the language talks about the financial obligation of the students tailored towards textbooks. Curro suggested to “expand the language” to encompass all debt students might accrue, and as a caveat, have a line about end of the year festivity privileges be taken away should a student or student’s family refuse to pay their balance.

They want to try this out on the middle and high schools, letting the elementary schools continue to handle any issues that might arise because the principals “do a nice job at the elementaries” in regards to collecting debt.

Board Chair Dan Lekas suggested that Curro not only write up an amendment to the handbooks, but also write up a policy dictating the consequences of families and students not paying their balances. Board member Steve Young disagreed, saying they should see how well changing the handbook works, and if they need to “add more teeth” then they can create a policy.

By the end of the discussion, it was ultimately agreed upon that Curro would write up both a policy and a new statement for the handbooks and bring them to the board’s next meeting to be reviewed.

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