Claremont Takes on Free Lunch

Valley News Correspondent
Thursday, October 11, 2018

Claremont — The SAU 6 business office has received anonymous offers from residents to help pay off $30,000 in school lunch debt after a Claremont school official proposed using a collection agency to crack down on lost lunch money.

“A lot of people have called,” SAU 6 Business Administrator Mike O’Neill said on Wednesday. “Some said they would be willing to sponsor a family for the school year.”

At last week’s School Board meeting, O’Neill floated the idea of hiring a collection agency to try to recover roughly $30,000 in unpaid lunch bills for the 2017-18 school year. The accumulated debt is spread across all grades.

“I have someone who owes $600. The student got breakfast and lunch and (the family) never paid a dime,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill said on Wednesday the $30,000 figure represents 422 accounts, of which 75 percent owe less than $20. He said forgiving any debt of $20 or less eliminates about 25 percent of the total amount owed.

By comparison, O’Neill said, Unity has 35 overdue accounts for a total debt of $931.60. There are 1,740 students in Claremont in grades pre-K through 12 and 110 in Unity in grades pre-K through 8. Messages left for Newport school officials on whether they are grappling with the same problem were not immediately returned.

In Claremont, the money is owed by families that should be paying the full amount for lunch ($3 to $3.25) and breakfast ($1.75) and are not on the free or reduced-price lunch program, O’Neill said.

Interim Superintendent Keith Pfeifer said he’s dealt with similar circumstances as a superintendent in other districts, including Mascoma. School officials often sent letters, he said, each successive one with a slightly more aggressive tone, and also offered the district’s help in filling out applications for free or reduced-price lunch.

Using a collection agency or similar means to get people to pay has had mixed results, he said.

“You do have people that simply cannot afford the lunch,” Pfeifer said of Claremont.

O’Neill said he has been told other districts might take a family to small claims court or leave the collection responsibility to the lunch company.

School districts cannot, by law, deny a student lunch regardless of how much is owed, O’Neill said. Furthermore, he said, the law now requires the district to provide the same lunch to all students, whereas before, the student in arrears may be given a basic, less expensive meal.

Pfeifer said although the SAU has offered to help families in applying for free or reduced-price lunch, he suspects some are reluctant to share the required personal financial information with the federal government.

“People don’t apply because they think it stigmatizes them (as poor),” O’Neill said, though he could not say how many of those who owe the school district would qualify.

More students on free or reduced-price lunch can benefit the school. They not only lower the cost of the lunch itself, they help the district receive more in state adequacy aid and federal Title I, according to O’Neill.

O’Neill said one reason the debt numbers seem so high now is that the district began contracting with a private food service company in 2017, and that arrangement keeps the books a little tidier.

“Now it is all POS (point of sale) transactions, which are recorded immediately,” he said, adding that when the school district provided lunch the record-keeping was probably not as accurate as a POS system.

Pfeifer praised residents for stepping forward and offering to help.

“People are being very generous, very thoughtful and caring,” he said. “The community is reaching out to support families in need.”

A message left School Board Chairman Frank Sprague was not immediately returned.

The School Board was expected to discuss the issue when it meets at a retreat on Sunday.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.