Parents owe more than $30,000 for school meals

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By Shaina Stockton and Brian Funk, Staff

HILLSVILLE — No citizens spoke when the Carroll County School Board held a public hearing concerning outstanding charges on school meal plans on June 9, but school officials still had plenty to discuss.

“We’ve made some strides in the past two weeks” in collecting money owed by students and parents, said Finance Manager and School Board Clerk Tammy Quesenberry.

She approached the board on May 13 with an outstanding student meal charges balance of more than $41,000. Even though this total spans the past several years, Quesenberry was still concerned that the numbers continued to climb each year.

The current system allows an unlimited amount of charges for elementary and middle school students — a system that has allowed several families to let charges slip hundreds of dollars into the negative.

As of June 6, delinquent meals fees totaled $35,976. Quesenberry added that $37,000 was owed at the end of the 2013 school year, so collections are a little better this year.

Board Chairman Brian Spencer asked if there would be any outreach to families that were delinquent with payments.

Quesenberry explained that a lot of parents have the opinion that the school is “feeding them anyway,” even if they can’t pay.

In May, Quesenberry explained that the high school began serving an “alternative lunch” for students with a negative balance and no money to offer up front for additional lunches. These students are given a turkey sandwich, vegetables and milk; and are prohibited from selecting from the buffet-style menu for paying students that includes choices like burgers, pizza, chicken and stromboli.

Quesenberry told Spencer that letters have already been sent home, and parents have been called. The school has been contacting anyone who owes more than $10, she explained.

“It still seems a little lax on enforcement and collection,” commented School Board Vice Chair Joey Haynes.

“We can set a value, and then turn anything above that over to a collection agency,” Quesenberry suggested.

She has already contacted a local collection agency, “but their percentage was high.”

“I want this policy to have teeth,” said Haynes.

Spencer said that if any account gets to the point of turning it over to a collection agency would increase the possibility of getting at least some of the money back, even if the agency takes a cut.

Haynes, an attorney, offered some insight into how it would work. “A collection agency will do more calling, then it goes to a judgment before we get into enforcement… and not all judgments get collected,” he told the board.

Quesenberry said that there are other repercussions for students not paying for meals. “The principal can exclude them from band, sports, [and] field trips,” she said.

When parents learn that, she said, they often pay up.

Some parents are making a good faith effort, Quesenberry said. One parent had a $200 balance for each of her children, and has already made $50 payments on each.

Quesenberry has stressed that the school system will work with anyone who is making a serious effort to pay what they owe. “We can set up payment plans, too,” she said.

Haynes suggested adding a provision to the policy that says that the school will conduct annual reviews to see if this plan is being effective.

No further action was taken on the matter that evening.