Collection agency goes after unpaid south Ga. student lunch bills

South Georgia's Brantley County losing thousands a day

The Brantley County school board is turning to a collection agency to help recoup unpaid student lunch bills, which administrators estimate total $16,000 to $18,000 on any given day.

Other school system efforts to collect the overdue payments, which range individually from "a few bucks up to $150," have failed, said Cindy Ham, district nutrition program director.

Beginning May 17, the district will turn unpaid lunch bills over to a Waycross collection agency that Ham described as "diligent but respectful." A 40-percent late fee will be added to the amount owed, she said.

"If the parents owe a $10 lunch bill, they will have to pay $14," said Ham, noting they are notifying all parents of the policy by letter and publishing it on the district's website and lunch menus.

The students won't be penalized, she said.

"The kids don't go hungry. We give them a free meal," Ham said. "Our board of education didn't want to put the children on the spot because this is an issue with the parents."

Federal regulations forbid school system nutrition programs from being in debt. The collection agency is a last-ditch effort to collect the money. Unless parents pay up, the school system will have to cover their debt from its general fund, Ham said.

"I hate that we have to do this. I don't want to do this. But we don't have any other choice. We have to obey the federal regulations," Ham said.

The school board authorized hiring a collection agency last year, but administrators delayed moving forward while continuing efforts such as written notices and follow-up phone calls reminding parents to pay. Because of the economy, they also wanted to give parents time to pay, Ham said.

"People get paid every other week or monthly. Some have been laid off or had their hours cut back. But they pay religiously as soon as they can," Ham said.

In some families, paying rent, electric and phone bills are given priority over a child's school lunch bill. Some parents, however, don't believe they should pay anything at all, she said.

"They feel it's like a textbook and should be provided to their child at no charge," Ham said. "A nutritious meal is just as necessary as a textbook to the learning process."

The school system, which has about 3,600 students, already provides breakfast free to all pupils every day. Unless they qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, students must pay for lunch. The reduced-price lunch costs 40 cents daily.

Lunches costs $1.25 each at the elementary schools and $1.50 at the middle and high schools. Students can buy extra entrees for $1 and second meals for $2.25 at all schools.

Elementary and middle school students are allowed to charge up to $8 for meals. High school students are not allowed to charge meals, according to district policy.

Ham said the number of students receiving free or reduced lunches has increased from 54 percent last year to 62 percent this year.

"We want to help families as much as we can. If they call us and let us know they don't have the money, we can work with them to get it worked out," she said.

Brantley County isn't the only school system with lunch money collection problems.

Until March 1, neighboring Glynn County averaged about $50,000 daily in unpaid student lunch bills, said Janet Mitchell, food and nutrition coordinator for the 12,615-student school system.

At that time, the district implemented a new policy that Mitchell said has dramatically reduced the outstanding debt for student lunches.

"It's down to about $18,000 on any given day now," said Mitchell, noting efforts are ongoing to reduce the debt even more.

Students are given a cheese sandwich and milk for lunch if they owe for more than five meals in elementary school, or more than three meals in middle school.

School officials then send letters home with those students twice a week reminding parents they owe lunch money, then follow up with telephone calls, Mitchell said.

"People came in droves to pay off their bills after we notified parents in February that this would be our new policy," Mitchell said.

Mitchell said they considered a collection agency, but decided to try the cheese sandwich policy first. They got the idea from other school systems with similar policies, she said.

"A child might forget a letter stuffed down in their bookbag, but they'll remember a cheese sandwich. I think the cheese sandwiches spark memories in parents that encourages them to pay because you get tired of eating the same thing every day," Mitchell said.

Glynn County school officials also work with parents who cannot pay. Meanwhile, a church and civic organization recently paid for all the students at two elementary schools who could not pay their lunch bills, she said.

"There are a lot of teachers here, too, who won't let a child go hungry," Mitchell said.

Mitchell said whatever debt remains when the fiscal year ends June 30 likely will be rolled over to the new year for collection.

By law, if the debts remain unpaid the school systems can take legal action against the debtors.

teresa.stepzinski@jacksonville.com, (912) 264-0405

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