, Gloucester, MA


June 7, 2013

Editorial: City schools right to press for unpaid school lunch bills

In taking at least six Gloucester families to small claims court, the city’s School Committee is taking a hard line in its effort to recoup some of the $60,000 the city is essentially owed for school lunches — just as it should.

Yes, many Gloucester schoolchildren are eligible for free lunches and breakfasts; those are provided, and they should be.

But for those families who are not eligible for the free programs, the city’s school district is certainly within its rights to collect for those meals, as is now trying to do just that. In fact, it’s the School Committee’s responsibility to taxpayers that it do so.

The issue surfaced earlier this week during a review of the School Committee’s fiscal 2014 budget before the City Council’s Budget and Finance subcommittee. The $60,000 figure refers to the amount never collected for lunches over the past two years, but $40,000 of that has come in the current school year, on top of $20,000 still owed from the fiscal 2012. And that suggests the problem may be getting worse.

Indeed, the six families who have been issued summons to small claims court each owe $250 apiece — and that’s nothing to sneeze at when it comes to shortchanging the city and its schools on revenues that, if not recovered, will have to be accounted for elsewhere in the school’s spending plan.

At its core, the issue of nonpayment for school lunches is no different than someone shortchanging the city — and thus other taxpayers, who would make up the difference – on property taxes, water or sewer rates or any other municipal charges.

Under the public schools lunch program launched 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 is, these cannot be cases of parents giving their kids daily lunch money, and the students either losing it or using it for another purpose. It’s simply a matter of not paying a bill — and the School Committee is right to do all it can to collect it.

That’s not taking a hard line; it’s taking the only practical line, and being accountable to city taxpayers.

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