By: Melanie Williamson
At the Monday, May 8, regular school board meeting, the board approved a donation of $5600 was received by the district to cover districtwide outstanding lunch charges. This initiated a discussion among board members regarding the policies on outstanding lunch accounts. Board member Sara Stepp asked for clarification regarding what the outstanding lunch accounts were, and it was explained that these are incurred when a parent does not put money in the student’s lunch account to pay for their lunch.
This issue has made national news several times recently as districts hold policies that include throwing the student’s lunch away, only giving them a small snack for lunch, or not providing a lunch at all. Some districts go as far as making the child wipe tables and clean while the other children eat their lunches. Superintendent Pempin explained that as a district, they never want to single out a student, which is what happens when those types of policies are in place. He went on to say that it is not the student’s fault, and years earlier, the board decided they were not going to let that happen.
As policy in Vermilion, no student is refused a lunch. Pempin explained that currently students without money in their lunch accounts will get a free lunch. He went on to say, at one time, after three charges, the students would only get a milk, vegetables, and peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but they decided against continuing that because they didn’t want the students without lunch money to be singled out.
Rather, the district works to notify the parents of the issue, so a lunch payment can be made. This includes robo calls, letters, and emails. However, Pempin explained that this has created a problem in that some parents simply ignore all the notifications and allow the outstanding charges to accumulate. He asserted that while the donation was very generous, they cannot assume that will always be available, and they need to do more to get at the root of the problem.
Pempin went on to explain that families with a financial need can qualify for free or reduced lunches to help ease the burden. One possibility is to meet with the families who consistently have outstanding balances to see if they would qualify for the free and reduced lunch program or if they were aware of their options.
Pempin stated they are also looking at putting a cap on how much a family can accumulate in outstanding balances. He asserted that they need to find a way to handle this without singling out the student. He went on to say that while it is not the student’s fault, there are families taking advantage of the current policy, and he does not believe that is fair; especially when there is a donor generously giving money to cover those balances. Pempin stated, “Families that can pay, should.”
Board member Stepp asked if the outstanding balances could be tacked on to school fees at the end of the year. Wilson responded that they are, but the fees can still be carried over and go unpaid. Wilson did go on to explain that if a family is owed a refund from something like a cancelled trip, they will check the cafeteria fees first, and if there is an outstanding balance, the money is applied there before a refund is issued.
Board member Mike Stark asked if kids are held back from activities or sports if they have unpaid fees. Pempin responded no and board president Shelly Innes followed up by stating that would be punishing the student, which is what they do not want to do. Wilson clarified by stating that prom and graduation are the only events that fees have to be current for participation. Sports are separate, and students can participate as long as their pay-to-play fees are current.
Superintendent Pempin also shared that there was a handbook created by the operations department regarding the cafeteria and lunch accounts that was not given out to the VES students, which was a mistake. He went on to say that most of the outstanding lunch balances are at VES, so the failure to give parents the handbook could be a contributing factor.
Going back to the idea of putting a cap on outstanding balances, Pempin stated that they need to decide on an amount, but it shouldn’t be more than one month’s worth of charges. Board member Nancy Oates asserted that they also should not wait until a family reaches the cap before connecting with them to find a solution. The board agreed this was an issue that needed dealt with and would be discussed further.