Some Western Pennsylvania school districts face dilemma over unpaid lunch tabs
Coming to school without lunch money could land a student in the principal's office. Running a tab could land Mom and Dad in small claims court — in at least one local school district.
The consequences of unpaid bills for school meals vary from district to district in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, as well as elsewhere. But there is one action schools across the state and nation are now explicitly discouraged from taking to recover debt: humiliating or shaming students into paying.
As of this month, schools must have written policies outlining how they will confront families who owe money.
Many local school districts have had such policies in place for years.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs national school meal subsidy programs and sets nutritional guidelines, mandated last year that districts operating the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program must put policies in writing. As the July deadline for setting those policies approached, reports surfaced from across the country detailing harsh practices at some schools.
The Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County was among those that made headlines for so-called “lunch shaming” after a cafeteria worker posted on Facebook about her decision to resign in light of district policy that required cafeteria workers to give students who owed more than $25 a cheese sandwich in place of a hot lunch.
Students around the country had been made to do chores to work off their debt while others had to wear a ribbon or have their hand stamped, indicating that they owed lunch money. In some cases, parents weren't included in conversations with principals or administrators about a student's meal debt. Other students were denied a meal or offered an alternative.
In the Derry Area School District in Westmoreland County, students are allowed to take a hot meal, even if they don't have money, Superintendent Cheryl Walters said.
“Whether or not those parents are paying, we know those children have to be fed properly,” Walters said. “They're not going to learn if they don't have a good meal.”
Walters said some families rely on the school to feed their children. More than half of the district's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs, according to district records.
About 15 percent of Derry Township's roughly 14,000 residents live below the federal poverty level, according to Census data.
But over time, allowing students to keep charging lunch puts stress on the district's cafeteria budget, especially when some families are hundreds of dollars in debt by the end of the school year. As per district policy, as outlined in the parent handbook , letters are sent home to parents on a weekly basis when a student's account reaches a negative balance of $5. Calls are made to parents when the account is $50 in the red.
If the account reaches negative $100, a letter is sent to parents. Failure to reply within 10 days of the letter being sent results in a complaint being filed with the local magistrate.
The district took nine families to court during the 2015-16 school year and 16 in 2016-17, when Derry Area closed the school year with $5,160 in unpaid meals.
According to available court records, all families that were sued owed the district more than $100. Some owed more than $500, with final judgments totaling close to $1,000 after court fees.
Kiski Area School District in Westmoreland County also takes families who do not settle school meal debt to court. The district had $3,500 of lunch debt at the close of the 2016-17 school year.
Unpaid debts in the Ligonier Valley School District, which totaled $389.35 at the end of last school year, are turned over to a collection agency.
Districts statewide are faced with similar dilemmas, said Gerard Giarratana, spokesman for the School Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania. Despite recent news coverage, he said this isn't a new problem for schools.
Shaming often occurs when schools do not have clear policies on how to communicate with families who owe for meals, Giarratana said. In addition, students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals are sometimes overlooked.
“It's because they don't have that phone call to the household, the notices, the piece of paper given to the child, the handbook,” Giarratana said.
Some local districts say getting eligible families enrolled in free and reduced-price lunch programs can be a challenge.
“We're working to try and at least get the word out,” said Wayne Wismar, business manager at Hempfield Area School District. “I don't know if they're reluctant to apply, even if they're eligible.”
The district had $17,421 in unpaid school meals this year.
The majority of students enrolled in the district's free and reduced-price lunch program qualify through “direct certification,” Wismar said. This means they automatically qualify because they live in a household that already receives services through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“We don't see that many paper applications, or online applications, in comparison,” Wismar said.
According to district policy, students are allowed a meal without paying.
But, as with other districts, Wismar acknowledged this causes financial stress. When meal debt occurs, the district covers it from the general fund at the end of the fiscal year. The Hempfield Area School Board has approved the ability to forward outstanding balances to a collection agency.
“Even forwarding it to collection doesn't guarantee much success with getting that money back,” Wismar said.
This school year, the district sent 387 letters to families with debts between $3 and $50, and 67 letters to families with higher debts. Outstanding debts above $50 will be turned over for collection, Wismar said.
Some schools manage to stay in the black, even when students don't pay.
“While the (district's) $14,600 negative balance seems high, it's not out of line considering North Allegheny's student population of 8,300,” said Kaitlyn Zurcher, spokeswoman for that Allegheny County school district.
Also, the district makes money on the lunch program overall, and the negative balance does not outweigh sales profits, she said. The guaranteed return for the 2016-17 school year is $68,297.
Profits from school lunch programs are generally returned to a district's cafeteria fund or used to support related programs.
The Hampton Township School District recorded a debt of $558.38 during the 2015-16 school year. Its lunch program still turned a profit.
The district, which serves close to 3,000 students in Allegheny County's North Hills, is fairly affluent, said Jeff Kline, director of administrative services. About 13 percent of students are enrolled in subsidized lunch programs.
Students are allowed to charge three emergency meals. After that, students with unpaid accounts get peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until the account is settled.
Districts with higher rates of students who qualify for direct certification can opt into the state Community Eligibility Provision , a reimbursement option that allows free meals for all children in high-poverty schools.
Pittsburgh Public Schools, which serves more than 24,000 students, participates in this program. All students can take free breakfast and lunch. About 63 percent of the district's students qualify for subsidized meal programs through direct certification.
Smaller suburban districts also take part in this program.
Monessen City School District in Westmoreland County, which serves about 800 students, offers free meals to all students.
The Woodland Hills School District in Allegheny County, where more than 80 percent of approximately 3,800 students are eligible for meal-assistance programs, also participates.
Matthew Guerry contributed to reporting. Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @ Jamie_Martines.