By Marjorie Nesin
---- — 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.
Without the money, the school committee’s first cuts from their budget would be clearing out proposed new positions, including an IT specialist position and a special education teacher at O’Maley. The next level of cuts, would rid their budget of a district math coordinator, an attendance officer and more positions. The third, and most searing tier of cuts, would eliminate existing staff positions.
Safier said the money owed for food is one more number subtracted from the already tight budget.
“The problem is that this has to come out of our operating budget,” Safier said. “It’s not like we profit from our food service program, but the food service program does need start up money each year.”
Start up money refers to covering the costs of purchasing basic food and ingredient staples needed to kick off the lunch program for the start of the school year.
As of March, the school had identified 30 food service accounts within the school system for which parents owed $250 or more for their children’s lunches. Administrators distributed letters to these families and placed phone calls, then threatened potential litigation in Gloucester District Court’s small claims division, according to the schools’ director of finance and operations, Hans Baumhauer.
That’s when 20 families arranged payment, Baumhauer said. The school district pursued small claims against the remaining 10, and four made payment, according to Baumhauer.
While a policy prohibits students with outstanding debts to receive a diploma onstage at graduation, that policy only accounts for one of 13 grade levels in the district. And, there are still “numerous” families who owe less than $250 on their children’s lunch accounts.
School Committee member Tony Gross remembers that, before the district implemented the electronic payment system two years ago, the district could hardly track unpaid lunches.
“The kids need to eat. They can’t be educated, if they’re hungry,” Gross said. “Everybody gets fed, so what we’re struggling with is we send notices home, bills go out, phone calls are made — but the debts don’t get paid.
“We’re really trying,” he said.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at email@example.com.