As delinquent meal accounts skyrocket, Washoe County School District trustees fired a warning shot on Tuesday to parents who are “gaming the system” and can afford to pay for their children’s meals but choose not to.
District officials said the problem doesn’t sit with needy families who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, but those who live in more affluent areas and can—at least on paper—afford to pay.
Parents who’ve been unresponsive to letters sent home can expect a tiered accountability system to trigger, with their accounts ultimately turned over to a debt collector if they fall too deep into the red during the 2018-19 school year.
The system would start with phone calls from school administrators for accounts of negative $20 or more. When accounts reach negative $30 and negative $50, efforts to contact parents will be made again. If unresponsiveness continues and if accounts reach negative $75, a counselor or social worker will become involved, citing student well-being as a top priority.
If no indication of repayment has been established or if a family doesn’t communicate hardship, accounts would be turned over to a professional debt collection agency contracted out by the Nevada State Controller. Parents would be warned prior to this action and given opportunity to appeal.
“We’ve got to stop the bleeding or else we’ll need to budget that amount, which takes away dollars that could go toward (hiring) teachers,” district chief financial officer Mark Mathers said. “It’s either going to increase the deficit or we’ll have to budget for it, which again increases the deficit. We need to come to some conclusions here and we need some additional efforts to stop the trend.”
Weekly letters in a family’s native language, weekly invoices, options for payment plans, and forms for free and reduced-price meals are sent home to those with negative accounts but largely go ignored, district staff said.
“I’ve been getting calls from principals, asking us to help with collections,” Kyle Rodriguez, district nutrition services accountant, told trustees. “Parents are calling and just saying they don’t want to pay because there’s no (penalty).”
Meal Debt Doubles
As of early May, meal debt climbed to $113,687, up from $95,134 in late February when trustees last discussed the issue. Mathers said that figure has grown to about $123,000 in the past two weeks and is forecast to climb higher.
By comparison, delinquent meal accounts totaled $29,623 during the 2015-16 school year and went to $66,760 during 2016-17.
Overdue accounts garnered attention when the U.S. Department of Agriculture instructed the district in 2016 to develop a meal charge policy.
Approximately 5,000 elementary school students currently have negative balances.
About 3,000 of those have debt of $10 or less, totaling almost $12,000. But 261 students have debts of $100 or more, totaling about $50,000.
Superintendent Traci Davis said staff at each school has been diligent about identifying struggling children and asking parents to fill out forms for free and reduced-price meals.
“What we know is that kids qualifying for free and reduced lunch eat because we provide free and reduced lunch,” Davis said. “It’s that pocket of students we’re talking about whose parents actually refuse to fill out the paperwork and this debt continues to grow. Walking away from a situation continues to increase the debt and it’s a tough conversation we have to have but we’ve got to figure it out.”
Trustees Debate Collections as Solution
While debating the issue, some trustees said they were concerned some families weren’t paying because they fell short of qualifying for meal benefits but were still struggling financially. Most agreed to support the tiered accountability system after a provision was inserted that allowed parents to appeal.
That wasn’t enough for Trustee John Mayer, who cast the lone dissenting vote.
“I just don’t want to see families hurt by taking these to collections,” Mayer said. “So if we could stop prior to collections, I’d vote yes. But I’m not going to vote for accounts going to collections.”
District officials said a family can communicate hardship verbally or in writing by contacting the school or central office. Their account would then be flagged and not sent to collections.
The district had been writing off unpaid lunch accounts as operating loses that were absorbed by its general fund. Such loses can’t be absorbed by the non-profit school food service account and must be reimbursed from a non-federal source of funds. It plans to write off delinquent debt accrued during the 2017-18 school year.
Students can pay for meals with cash or their parents can send in checks or pre-pay online for meals at MySchoolBucks.com. Those opting for online payment can monitor their children’s purchase activity and get notifications when balances are low.
Elementary and secondary school breakfast costs $1.75. Lunch is $2.70 in elementary schools and $2.95 in secondary schools. Bringing lunch from home is also an option.
Elementary school students who don’t bring a home lunch and have a negative balance can charge a USDA meal but cannot charge a la carte or extra items.
Middle and high school students in the same situation don’t receive a meal but parents are encouraged to explore payment options and to speak with administrators about solutions.