School board addresses unpaid meal charges

DELANO, MN – A cafeteria worker at the Stewartville School District in southern Minnesota recently made headlines after reportedly scraping food off the trays of children whose families owed money for meals.

Delano school officials have denounced such a practice, saying students should never be denied a meal or shamed for having a negative balance.

Delano School Board members unanimously approved the first reading of Policy 534 regarding unpaid meal charges during the board’s Monday evening meeting.

Highlights of the policy drafted by the Minnesota School Board Association and modified by the district include:

• Individual students on a family meal account may not charge more than $5 to the account when the balance reaches zero.

• Schools receiving school lunch aid must make lunch available without charge to all students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, regardless of account balance.

• A student with an outstanding meal charge debt will be allowed to purchase a meal if the student pays for the meal when it is received.

• When a student has a negative account balance, the student will not be allowed to charge a snack item, a second lunch, or second entrée.

• Families will be notified of a low balance once the account reaches $10. Families will be notified by automated telephone calls, emails from administrative assistants, letters sent home, and/or phone calls from principals.

• Reminders for payment will not demean or stigmatize any student participating in the school lunch program.

• Where appropriate, families may be encouraged to apply for free and reduced-price meals.

• After the district makes reasonable efforts to collect unpaid meal charges, negative balances of more than $25 not paid prior to the end of the school year will be turned over to the superintendent’s office for collection using collection agencies, claims in conciliation court, or another legal method permitted by law.

• The school district may not enlist the assistance of non-district employees, such as volunteers, to engage in debt-collection efforts.

• The policy must be provided in writing via mail, email, back-to-school packets, student handbooks, etc. to all households at or before the start of the school year, students and families who transfer into the school district, and all district personnel responsible for enforcing the policy. It may also be posted on the district’s policy in addition.

Though board members did not discuss the policy Monday, they discussed it at length during an Oct. 23 work session.

Business Manager Mary Reeder explained that, per legislation, every school district is required to have an unpaid meal charge policy in place.

She added that 2017 was the first time any meal overdrafts were sent to collections.

“This was our first year of going into the summer with almost $1,000 in unpaid meal debt,” Reeder said. “In the past, we’ve had zero or under $50.”

Five accounts with more than $50 in unpaid charges were sent to collections, Reeder said.

She confirmed that principals had contacted the families, in addition to emails and automated phone calls they received.

“Principals reach out to the families to find out: Do we need to put a meal plan in place? Is there an issue with the family that maybe they need a little help, so that’s where we come in with Random Acts of Kindness (dollars)? Did you suffer a job change or something that may have changed your income, so maybe we can look at the free and reduced application?” Reeder said. “We go through all those processes but, sometimes families, whether it’s an embarrassment factor, they just don’t respond back.”

“Even back when I was principal, I had a few conversations with families,” Superintendent Matt Schoen said. “As long as it’s done in a safe, not a public environment – this is a private conversation – then the administration has the discretion to put dollars in the account. I did that several times.”

He added that principals, not district staff, are in the best position to decipher if a family is in need because they know the families better.

School board member Rachel Depa said she was concerned for children on family accounts who may not get a meal because siblings charged for meals before them, causing a negative balance.

“I have a problem with that because it’s not the kid’s fault,” Depa said.

While the policy may call for meals to be denied at times, Reeder said that is not the district’s practice.

Depa said she was contacted by a parent who said her child was denied lunch during the previous school year.

“That shouldn’t be the case,” Schoen said.

Johnson said there have been issues in the past when this issue was “not handled in the most professional manner.”

“They’re not supposed to shame the children at all,” Reeder said. “That’s a training thing.”

Board member Carolyn Milano said a negative balance should not be communicated to children at all.

“As a parent, I’m notified, and I’m fine with that notification,” Milano said. “I agree with Amy. I don’t think you should say anything to the kids. You’re totally notified as it goes under $10.”

Schoen added that parents could change their preference to be notified sooner than when the account reaches $10.

“I’m not concerned with the notification,” Depa said. “As long as we’re feeding the kids, I’m happy. I just don’t ever want to embarrass a kid or punish a kid because mom and dad either didn’t pay, couldn’t pay, or had other priorities than their children.”

The second and final read of the policy is scheduled to take place during the next meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 18, in the high school media center.

Odds and ends

In other business, the board:

• heard the auditor’s report from Janel Bitzan, of BerganKDV. Bitzan said BerganKDV issued an unmodified opinion of the audit, which is the best possible. She noted a lack of segregation of accounting duties, which is a common finding for school districts of Delano’s size. She said revenues have been increasing, and that the district should continue to grow its fund balance, due to the growth of the district.

• heard the World’s Best Workforce report from Director of Teaching and Learning Joe Vieau. Part of the report included aspects of the Every Student Succeeds Act: students who opt out of testing will count against the district, all student groups will have equal weight, graduation rates of all students will be an indicator, and 90 to 95 percent attendance will be the goal.

• approved the facility use procedures manual.

• accepted a total of $43,639 in donations, along with books for high school language arts classes, from 16 entities and individuals.

• approved personnel matters, including the resignation of Delano High School cheerleading coach Lindsay Welch and the hiring of head baseball coach Jeff Olson.

• learned about physical education programming at Delano Elementary School.

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