Six Gloucester families who owe more than $250 for their children’s school lunches have been summonsed to small claims court, where the school district will try to recoup some of the $60,000 owed to the district for lunches that were eaten but not paid for.
The outstanding debt, according to Superintendent Richard Safier, is owed by families whose income falls above the threshold for free or reduced lunches. Of the $60,000 total, $40,000 worth of unpaid lunches were rung up this school year and $20,000 last year.
“It’s been a major source of concern for us,” Safier said in an interview. “The problem is that there’s a significant number of families that are simply not paying their bill.”
Under the public schools lunch program implemented about two years ago, parents can pay their students’ lunch bills by logging onto a website, identifying their child, and electing to pay via credit card or check on the site. A parent or guardian can also add money to a student’s account before the student buys lunch. Then, at lunchtime the students swipe their ID cards, like a credit or debit card, to either pay for their meals from an existing balance or create a balance to be paid.
“The point of sales program is designed to eliminate all those cash exchanges, and it’s also designed to limit any indication of who might be on free or reduced lunch,” Safier said. “It’s a protection against stigmatizing students who are in need.”
But, as the School Committee prepares their tight budget for next year, the unpaid $60,000 enhances the looming threat of cuts. The mayor’s budget request would fund the schools at a level of $36.4 million, but the superintendent said at a Monday night hearing that the school would need at least another $1 million in funding to operate without any cuts.