School meal debt climbs to $41,000
Crook County families owe the school district $41,000 for lunches, but no one has been sent to a collections agency — yet.
The Crook County School District adopted a policy to send people to collections, and they were going to start this last June.
"But we're on hold because it sounds like we're blazing our own trail, and we don't know of any other districts doing that," CCSD Director of Business and Finance Anna Logan said. "We're on hold until we can figure out exactly what path we want to take."
"We all understand that it can be tough making ends meet," CCSD Nutrition Services Supervisor Dana Rudy added. "If families can just contact us, we will be more than happy to work with them to arrange some sort of payment solution."
At the end of the 2015-16 school year, the meal debt was $10,000. Last summer, the debt increased to $27,000. Now, the families of 681 students owe $41,000.
"If they didn't pay last year, it almost doubles because the same people aren't paying," Logan said.
The highest balance owed is close to $1,000. The lowest balance is 5 cents.
"We have a lot of students with small balances that range from $1 to $100, and these all add up," reported Kayley Woosley, the district office receptionist who is responsible for notifying families of their debts.
House Bill 3454, known as the "lunch shaming" bill, went into effect a year ago, requiring Oregon schools to provide lunch to all students, regardless of their ability to pay.
For years, the CCSD has continued to feed students even if they owed money. The new bill did not change the CCSD practice.
"We serve the student regardless of their ability to pay. We don't even have balances showing at the register anymore," Rudy said.
The result, most school districts across the state are finding out, is that people don't pay their bills.
"I've heard of another school district that has over $200,000 in unpaid lunch debt," Logan said.
Rudy pointed out that School Nutrition Professionals all across the country are dealing with this issue — it isn't just an Oregon problem.
"The vast majority of SN Professionals feel that universal free meals are the best solution to the problem," Rudy said. "After all, we give kids all the other tools they need to learn while at school — food is just another tool that makes learning possible. Hungry kids don't learn as well as nourished ones. To me, it seems as though the benefits of universal feeding would far outweigh the minimal costs per student."
The district has 1,296 students who qualify for free meals – which is 42 percent of the student population. Another 320, or 10 percent, qualify for reduced meals.
Logan pointed out that some families are just barely above the free and reduced meals cutoff. Others have neglected to fill out an application – which is required at the beginning of each school year.
This school year, the district began serving breakfast free of charge to all students in the district.
They do request that all families still fill out applications for free and reduced meals, Rudy said. The district is reimbursed based on how many are free, reduced and paid, whether they charge students or not. So, if a family qualifies for free meals and does not have a current application on file, the district only gets reimbursed 30 cents for that meal rather than the full amount.
"We can't afford to offer free meals to everyone at that rate – food costs alone average $1.50 to $2 per meal," Rudy said.
The school district expects those who owe money to already be aware of their debt.
"We have consistent communications that go out in various forms that are on certain frequencies. We send collection letters, we warn people," said Logan.
Woosley sends email notifications once a week to families with meal debt. On the 15th of each month, she mails letters to each student owing more than $5.
"For balances over $100, I am working on calling each family once a month," Woosley said. "This is a long list, so it is taking me some time to get to everyone."
She also sends out reminders to everyone, letting them know that if a bill is more than $200, the district policy is to report the unpaid balance to collections.
"Another issue we are having is people make payment arrangements with me and then don't make those payments," Woosley said.
Families can access an online payment portal on the school district site. The district accepts credit card payments at the district office, as well as cash or checks at the district office or any of the schools.
After news about the meal debt spread last summer, several community members stepped up, offering to donate money to families with debt. In response, the district set up an online donation button on the district website.
Since then, $2,168 has been donated to student meal debt.
"We have done all kinds of things to give them opportunities to pay, and we even set up payment plans, we work with people, so it's not like we're being mean about this," Logan said. "We pay for the staff. We pay for the supplies. We pay for the food. We can't do it for free."
How to pay
Online: http://crookcounty.k12.or.us/ under the Parent Resources tab and Cafeteria Resources link
District office: 471 NE Ochoco Plaza Drive, Prineville
How to donate: Visit http://crookcounty.k12.or.us/. Click the "Donate" button. Under "School," select "Crook County School District." Under "Item," select "Donation Student Meals." Enter payment information.