Overdue lunch bill now sticky situation

Richmond County middle and high school students who fall behind on paying for their lunches are being punished by getting only a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast.

That revelation didn't sit well with several school board members, particularly because the school system offers breakfast free to all students.

"Maybe I'm wrong, but I have a huge problem with it," said Jimmy Atkins, who brought up the topic at Tuesday's board meeting. "I don't think that just because a student may be delinquent in their lunch account that it should affect something we're offering that we call free."

School nutrition director Josephine Mack said the nutrition staff came up with the idea to encourage students who have skipped two or more lunch payments to bring their accounts up to date.

"Children do have their money in high school, and they do other things with it," she said. "We are trying to collect on our charges by giving them the alternate meal at breakfast so they will pay on their lunch account, because they will eat breakfast and then not eat lunch."

The board's policy is to allow middle and high school students one "charge," or unpaid lunch, then offer either a peanut butter and jelly or a cheese sandwich for lunch if they continue not to pay. The school nutrition staff was simply extending that practice to breakfast for middle and high school students who continue to avoid paying what they owe in lunch money, Mack said.

"All schools don't do that," she said. "Some principals tell their (cafeteria) managers they don't want any of their children to have peanut butter and jelly."

Board member Jack Padgett said that means those schools "are going against our own rules," resulting in inconsistent enforcement.

School board Chairman Marion Barnes said the practice of forcing students to have a sandwich for breakfast, which is free, although they are delinquent on lunch accounts is no better than predatory lenders that capitalize on low-income people.

"We are discriminating against kids, and we are embarrassing kids," he said. "If I see (Superintendent) Dr. (Frank) Roberson eating a peanut and butter and I got whatever was served, then I know Dr. Roberson is not paying his bill. I don't think that's good. I see a problem with that."

Board member Helen Minchew also expressed a distaste for breakfast peanut butter and jelly.

"I thought when we approved (free) breakfast years ago it was for all children, regardless of whether they can afford or not afford it, so that they at least have a meal to start off the day," she said. "I'd like to keep it that way and look for other ways to collect the money."

Roberson said he will meet with district staffers to do just that.

"I don't anticipate any need for board action other than an update," he said.

In other business

In other action Tuesday, Richmond County school board committees:

- Accepted a $6.4 million bid from H.G. Reynolds Construction Co. Inc. of Aiken for phase 2 renovations at Tubman Educational Center

- Accepted a $17,603 bid from Mark's Clearing and Grading of Hephzibah to demolish the Junior ROTC building at Hephzibah, which was destroyed by arson in June

- Approved using $1.6 million in Phase III special purpose local option sales tax money to buy textbooks

- Approved using $450,000 in the local option sales tax money for Global Scholar Program, an online grading system for teachers

- Approved using $300,000 in the local option sales tax money to install air conditioning on school buses that don't have it

- Approved using $85,000 in special option tax money to replace five maintenance department trucks having more than 200,000 miles each.

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