Donors Pay Off School Lunch Debt

Valley News Correspondent
Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Claremont — The nearly $33,000 owed to the school district for unpaid lunches and breakfasts was wiped off the books at Wednesday night’s School Board meeting thanks to the generosity of community members.

The board voted unanimously to accept $32,596 in donations — including an anonymous donation of slightly more than $29,000 — and eliminate the debt from the 2017-18 school year. Ten donors, whose names were read at the meeting, contributed amounts ranging from $10 to just above $3,000 for a total of $3,530.

“Thank you, Claremont,” School Board Chairman Frank Sprague said emphatically after the vote.

Interim Superintendent Keith Pfeifer also thanked the community for its “thoughtfulness, caring and generosity” toward the school district.

Board member Mike Petrin assured residents that the district is working to prevent the same thing from happening in the current school year.

“We appreciate the donations and we are working diligently to fix things in the future,” Petrin said.

One step the board agreed to at a meeting in October was to hire a person to work part time to monitor the lunch program and ensure it is being administered properly. That person also might contact families who are in arrears to discuss the circumstances but not to demand payment and assist families in completing forms for free or reduced lunch.

The debt was brought to the board’s attention last month by the district’s business and finance director Mike O’Neill. While there was mention at one meeting of hiring a collection agency or perhaps taking families to small claims court, the board never seriously considered either approach.

At Wednesday’s meeting, O’Neill provided a breakdown of the amount owed by 452 accounts in grades pre-K through 12. Of that total, 122 are from Stevens High School; about 90 each at Maple Avenue and Disnard elementary schools and the middle school; with about 40 at Bluff Elementary. The average, calculated by dividing total owed by the number of accounts, is just $72, but the maximum owed at each school is several hundred dollars, including $673 at Maple Avenue and $521 at Stevens. The highest amount at the other schools is about $450.

O’Neill previously said the money was owed by families that pay the full amount for lunch — $3 to $3.25 and $1.75 for breakfast — and are not on the free and reduced lunch program. By law, a school district cannot deny a student lunch regardless of how much is owed and also must provide the same lunch to all students.

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