BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – After writing off close to $60,000 in unpaid meal bills at the end of the 2015-16 school year, the district is already $35K in the hole to start this year.
At Monday’s Fort Madison School District School Board meeting, Melaney Quereto the director of the district’s food program, advised the board the school district is already behind $35,000 this year. District Secretary Sandra Elmore confirmed the figure and then reminded the board the figure only represents accounts that are over $200. Then Elmore reminded the board that the district had just written off $60K to start the year.
“We wrote it all off and sent those to a collection agency and now we’re starting all over and we’re already at $35,000,” Elmore said. “And these are typically not our free and reduced lunch people.”
Superintendent Erin Slater and several board members said it was important to understand that the district would not deny a child a meal, but the district may have to look at alternative means to offset the unpaid accounts. One idea suggested included having students who have unpaid accounts pick up a separate lunch from the office and then return to the cafeteria. The board took no action on the issue, but was certainly geared up about the continuing loss of revenue.
“This is a hard thing because we don’t want any child to go hungry. However, this is essentially $100k out of our nutrition budget. It’s like were enabling people to not pay. I wish we could wave a magic wand and take care of this, but it’s just not that easy,” said board member Dianne Hope.
“We can’t keep writing these amounts off,” said board member Gayla Young. “How can your department eat $100,000?,” she asked Quereto. “It’s like we said, some high school (families) are taking advantage of this.”
Board Vice President Tim Wondra said there is no incentive to make district residents who are behind on their meal accounts to pay.
“I’m one that pays full price for meals for my kids. But what’s my incentive to keep paying when others don’t,” Wondra said.
Board President Timm Lamb said it’s a sticky situation and needs a specific solution.
“I know we all agree that there’s a problem, but we’re not sure what the solution is,” Board President Timm Lamb said.
Quereto, who’s retiring in January, said other schools have programs where students and parents can be called into the school to address the issue.
“If there is some way that you can fend this off before the student gets in line (to get a meal)… I want there to be as little trauma to the students as possible,” Hope said.
At a recent state school board convention, board member Lois DiPrima said that issue was addressed and some schools were putting alternative sack lunches in students’ lockers who had substantially overdue meal accounts. DiPrima also asked the board if district employees had overdue accounts, and could wages be garnished to recoup the money. Quereto said the bills would have to be sent to collections first and legal paperwork would have to be drawn up.
“Once we start garnishing wages, that’s an embarrasment. The sheriff comes to the workplace and presents that to HR, but I don’t know how else to do it to attract parents’ attention,” Hope said. “If we have a parent who can’t afford the garnishment, we should be working with them on free and reduced lunches.”
“I agree with Dianne, we’ve got to do something. That’s a lot of money,” board member Jared Hotop said.
“Your sports departments, they’re not $60K in the hole…or they’re not playing,” board member Gayla Young said..
“I think when we hire the new person, we make that part of the process that they come up with a plan. I think that’s gotta be something that’s discussed as part of that position,” Lamb said.