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Unpaid meal fees eat away at budget

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By Shaina Stockton

HILLSVILLE — A continuous abuse of Carroll County Public Schools’ student meal charges has forced officials to consider changing their sky’s-the-limit policy on school lunches.
Finance Manager and School Board Clerk Tammy Quesenberry aired her concerns to the Carroll County School Board at the May 13 meeting, by explaining that the total outstanding balance for student meal charges grows more and more outrageous each year.

Right now, the outstanding balance of charges — which spans the past several years — is more than $41,000; and at the rate the numbers are climbing each year, Quesenberry predicted that the total could easily top $60,000 in the next two years.
“Some of these balances are getting up into high amounts, and these continue to follow the student into high school,” Quesenberry later told The Gazette.
For example, she noted that one elementary student owes around $550, “which basically means that they have been charging for their whole career.
“And it’s not going to go away. By the time that child gets to middle school or even high school, that number will be unmanageable,” Quesenberry said.
The current system allows an unlimited amount of charges for elementary and middle school students. However, the negative balance started climbing higher and faster in recent years, as families suffered from the economic downturn.
“In 2011, we had around $9,000 of outstanding charges,” she said. By the end of 2012 that number reached $16,000, and by 2013 it was at $32,000.”
These charges directly impact the food service budget, but the federal government has already warned that this can’t be allowed to happen. “That means that we will have to absorb the costs out of our operational budget instead,” said Quesenberry.
In addition to sending out balance letters every two weeks, and making phone calls to parents whose children are in the negative every week, the schools have been forced to make some policy changes to prevent further abuse of the system.
As of May 1, the high school began serving an alternative lunch for students with a negative account balance and no money for that day. “For example, if [a student] had a negative account balance of $200, but they had money to pay that day, they would still get a normal lunch,” she said.
However, if the pockets are empty, they have to skip the buffet style lines for burgers, pizza, stromboli, chicken, steak, etc. Instead, these students get a turkey sandwich, some vegetables, and milk.
“They still get a healthy meal. We are just not allowing a choice,” she explained. “We will never deny anyone a meal at our schools.”
In order to permanently curb this issue in the future, Quesenberry suggested to the board that it limit charges to no more than five per elementary school student, and no more than three charges per student at the middle and high schools. If passed, this change would be implemented during the next school year.
This plan would still be lenient compared to surrounding schools, which typically don’t even allow charges at the high school level. (See the related story on this page.)
Whether the resolution is approved or not, Quesenberry noted that the outstanding balance isn’t going anywhere.
At this point, she is not sure how that will be handled. “We have the option of taking this to court… we can post the outstanding charges publicly… but we’d hate to have to go that far,” she said. “Right now, we are just asking parents to please [take responsibility]. We did our part by serving the children, and they need to do their part to pay for that.”
Even if parents can’t pay the full balance that they owe, Quesenberry says that any good faith effort toward payment is better than nothing. “This just isn’t fair to the parents who are working hard to pay for their children’s lunch,” she said.
The board agreed to having a public hearing on the matter in June to allow citizens to comment about the situation.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT
How do other school districts limit student meal charges?

At the May 13 Carroll County School Board meeting, Tammy Quesenberry offered a list of policies from surrounding school systems, as an example of the limits other schools have place on their student meal charges.

Galax City
Students at all levels are allowed to charge a maximum of $10. No students are allowed to purchase a la carte items if they have charges.

Roanoke City
Elementary and middle school students are allowed to charge meals, but not high school students. Students with charges are not allowed to purchase a la carte items, except for milk, until the entire accounts paid for. Excessive charges are addressed by city administration, including legal action and collection proceedings, when charges total $20. Principals may place other limitations on students who abuse the policy.

Roanoke County
Elementary students are allowed to charge up to five lunches, while secondary students are allowed to charge up to two lunches. Repayment is expected the next day. Students are not allowed to buy a la carte items except for milk until their debt is repaid. If either limit is exceeded, the student will be offered a cheese sandwich and milk for any subsequent meals. Principals may place other limitations on students who abuse the policy.

Bristol
Elementary students are allowed to charge a week’s worth of meals. When a student reaches the cut off limit, he or she is given the opportunity to call a parent or guardian to bring money, or they will be given a sandwich and milk. No extras can be purchased by students until all outstanding charges are paid. Middle school students are allowed to charge up to three days’ worth of meals, and no charges are allowed at the high school level.

Floyd County
There is a charge limit of two breakfast or lunch meals per students. There are no charges for a la carte items. If charges are not paid promptly, the school reserves the right to offer an alternative lunch until the account is paid.

Wythe County
Elementary and middle school students can charge, but at the end of the day the cafeteria manager brings a list of the charges to the school office. The office pays the charge amount so the food service fund is credited. The school principal is then responsible for collecting the money. High school students are not allowed to charge.

Pulaski County
Students at all elementary schools are allowed to charge one breakfast, and are allowed to charge lunch. An alternative meal is served if a child has excessive charges. Seven elementary schools have established “hardship or care funds” that allow anonymous donors to deposit money to provide meals for students. No child is allowed to buy a la carte items if they do not have the entire amount for their lunch. The school office covers the cost of the charged lunches. Students at Pulaski High School, Dublin Middle School and Pulaski Middle School are allowed one charge, which must be paid before any other charges are allowed.

Radford City
Elementary students are allowed to charge lunch and breakfast with the consent of the school principal or their parent. If a child accumulates charges a copy of their account is sent home on Friday. If the money is not paid on Monday, an alternative lunch is served. Students at Radford High School and Dalton Intermediate do not allow meal charges. No students are allowed a la carte items if they have a negative balance. The school office covers the cost of the charges.

Washington County
Elementary and middle students may charge breakfast and lunch to a maximum of $10. Once the limit has been met, no further charges are allowed and an alternative lunch is provided. No charges are allowed at the high schools.

The public hearing will be held on June 9 at 6:15 p.m. on the third floor of the Carroll County Governmental Complex in the school board conference room, to hear the views of the citizens regarding the student meal charges policy in the school nutrition program. For more information, call (276) 728-3191 or (276) 236-8145.