Pa. school districts turn to collection agencies to pursue payment of debts for meals

“It’s definitely an issue and if nothing else, it’s caused us to focus on it as a priority to chase down money."

  • Jan Murphy/PennLive

(Undated) — Fifty-one families in Lower Dauphin School District found out there is no such thing as a free lunch, especially when it comes to their children’s school meal accounts.

The district turned over their names to a collection agency to go after the $15,275.36 that those families owed at the end of the school year. Some or most of those families are now on a payment plan with the agency; one family paid off their school meal debt in full, said district spokesman Jim Hazen.

This is in accordance with a district policy the school board adopted in December when its food service program faced more than $25,000 in outstanding balances in student lunch accounts.

“We had to do something,” Hazen said. “When the board and administration drafted the policy, thought went into helping families whose financial circumstances have changed but also providing the district with a mechanism to recoup money owed.”

As the 2019-20 school year gets underway, school districts are making an effort to alert families who qualify for free and reduced price lunches to enroll in the program. They are placing forms to enroll in the program on their websites and spreading the word through district newsletters.

But some have found students who have negative balances in their accounts often come from families of means who simply choose to ignore the debt, which carries over from one year to the next.

The office manager at G.H. Harris Associates Inc., the Dallas, Pa., collection firm Lower Dauphin hired, confirmed that going after escalating school meal debts is a growing area of its collection business.

Manager Paul Adamshick said the people that the agency contacts usually claim that they were unaware of the unpaid bill. But several district policies reviewed by PennLive indicate notification to parents and guardians of low and negative balances is the first step in the collection process.

Food service operations are supposed to be self-supporting enterprises but often that is not the case. That makes addressing the rise in unpaid student meal debt even more concerning to food service directors who also understand the importance of healthy meals to student learning.

Three quarters of the 812 districts responding to a national survey report having student meal debt, according to the Arlington, Va.-based School Nutrition Association’s just-released 2019 School Nutrition Trends Report. That is similar to its findings from surveys going back to 2014.

But the amount of that debt is rising. The median debt owed fell in the $2,000-$2,500 range in the 2014. In 2018, the median rose to $3,400.

Emily Cohen for WHYY

Students pass though a stairwell at Overbrook High School. The school has over 5 floors, but only 3 of which are in active use, not including the basement levels.

“It’s definitely an issue and if nothing else, it’s caused us to focus on it as a priority to chase down money,” said Gerry Giarratana, food service director at Palisades School District in Bucks County and spokesman for the School Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania.

It became an issue in the past couple of years after state and federal laws put a stop to districts engaging in lunch shaming – a practice of shaming students with a negative meal account balance by stamping their arm, serving them a cheese sandwich, making them do chores at school, forcing them to throw out a meal after it was served, among other forms of public humiliation.

Many districts changed their policies to require students to be served the main, or reimbursable, lunch meal even if their lunch account had a low or negative balance. This led to districts’ unpaid meal debts rising in the past couple of years to the point where district officials complained to state lawmakers about lunch debts in the tens of thousands of dollars, said Senate Republican spokeswoman Jenn Kocher.

Lawmakers then relented on the lunch-shaming ban by passing a law in June that rolls back the ban to allow districts to serve alternative meals to students owing more than $50 in a school year until the unpaid balance is paid or a payment plan is established.

Collecting school meal debt

Districts that contract with a collection agency to pursue the unpaid bills first try themselves to get the families to pay the debt through repeated notifications and sharing of information about the government-subsidized free and reduced-price lunch program.

Through that program, districts are paid $2.83 for every free lunch served, and $2.43 for every reduced-price lunch with the expectation that the student will pay 40 cents. However, it prohibits districts from using those subsidies to pay off unpaid meal debt.

For some districts, though, it’s those who are contributing to the problem of students’ mounting meal debt garnering attention.

“What was interesting to me, the debt was not up among our economically challenged students, which was a surprise to us,” Lewisburg Area School Board President Swope told the Sunbury Daily Item last spring. “The students who were not on the eligibility for free and reduced meals were the ones who had the debt. In many cases the efforts to reach out did not seem to work to help people understand. When people don’t pay their bills when they are able to pay their bills, that has to come from somewhere, from programs and budget. It takes away our ability to provide programs that students really need.”

Kocher said that complaint heard from district officials is what motivated the recent state law change that now allows for alternative meals to be served. “This change is designed to focus on parents who have the ability to pay and were not and in doing so [are] taking advantage of the” situation, she said.

Matt Rourke / The Associated Press

FILE PHOTO: Robbi Giuliano teaches her fifth grade class as they sit on yoga balls at Westtown-Thornbury Elementary in West Chester.

Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association said unpaid meal debt also stems from families who enroll in and qualify for the reduced-price meal program but struggle to pay the 30 cents for breakfasts and 40 cents for lunch that is required. Meanwhile, she said other families may qualify for that program but don’t apply because of barriers encountered in the application process.

“The application can be confusing for some, intimidating for others, especially those who are hesitant to provide so much personal information,” she said. “Stigma is also a barrier.”

For Harrisburg and Steelton-Highspire school districts, unpaid meal debt isn’t an issue.

All of Steel-High’s more than 1,300 students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches because of the district’s high poverty rate, said Superintendent Travis Waters. The same is true for Harrisburg, where all of its 6,500 students eat free, said district spokeswoman Kirsten Keys.

East Pennsboro Area School District ended the last school year with 92 of its nearly 2,700 students having an outstanding school lunch balance – 47 were under $45 and 45 were over $45, said district spokeswoman Morgan Horton. Its policy echoes that of several other midstate districts in notifying parents of low or negative balances and offering assistance to parents to complete the free and reduced-price lunch applications, but she said it doesn’t go as far as turning them over to a collection agency.

East Pennsboro continues to serve the school food program meal to students with low or negative balances, unless their parents provide notice that they want food withheld, she said. Other districts’ policies also allow for parents to request student meals be withheld.

West Shore School District reported it had about 200 students, current and former, who owed about $17,000 from the last school year. District spokeswoman Rhonda Fourhman said that dollar figure was decreasing daily as families continue to make payments and community donations are received to help cover it. She said her district does work with a collection agency to go after unpaid debt but continues to serve students meals even if they owe money.

At the nearly 9,000-student Cumberland Valley School District, unpaid meal debt at the end of last year was approximately $10,000. It was paid off with “donations made specifically for this purpose to the district and to the Eagle Foundation,” said district spokeswoman Tracy Panzer.

Giarratana considers himself fortunate compared to other districts in Bucks County that have larger unpaid account balances. He said the 1,700-student Palisades’ unpaid meal debt stands at $1,281.

But when considering that figure has jumped from $221 four years ago, he said he can see how this could become a more costly issue for larger districts. Bethlehem Area School District, a 13,600-student district in Northampton County, saw its debt jump 50 percent in the year before the lunch shaming ban was enacted, to $154,590 after it took effect.

Some districts have considered or resorted to taking drastic measures to get families’ attention, such as restricting a student’s participation in extra-curricular activities or holding back a diploma until the graduating students’ debt is cleared.

One northeastern Pennsylvania gained widespread attention with its method of trying to coax parents to settle their debts.

Matt Rourke / The Associated Press

Bicycles are parked outside Tamaqua Area High School in Tamaqua, Pa., Friday, Jan. 4, 2019.

Faced with an overdue lunch bill of $22,000, the Wyoming Valley West School District threatened parents with placing their child in foster care if they didn’t pay up. The school board there later backed down after accepting an offer by Todd Carmichael, CEO of Philadelphia-based La Colombe Coffee, to cover that debt.

No alternative meals

While the new state law allows for alternative meals to be served to those with unpaid meal debts above $50, officials from East Pennsboro, West Shore, Cumberland Valley, and Lower Dauphin say their districts have no immediate plans of doing that.

“We recognize the educational and health benefits of receiving a school breakfast and/or lunch and will provide a reimbursable school lunch to students regardless of their ability to pay or any balance they may have from last school year,” said West Shore’s Fourhman.

Lower Dauphin’s Hazen said, “We never have nor would we at least at this point consider doing alternative lunches that would single out a kid because a student doesn’t have any control over whether their family sends in money for lunches.”

Instead, he said that 3,700-student district will continue to serve students the main lunch option, excluding a la carte items, while relying on the approach spelled out in its policy to go after meal debt.

Lower Dauphin’s policy states that once a meal debt tops $25, the school principal sends a letter to the student’s parents notifying them about the outstanding balance. If the debt goes unpaid and it reaches more than $75, the superintendent sends a letter to the parents advising them they have 14 days to make a payment arrangement before the debt is turned over to the collection agency. Families also are alerted that the collection agency’s fees will be added to the debt.

By the end of the last school year, Hazen said that collection strategy resulted in the district collecting $18,000 of what its food service operation was owed.

“It definitely put a dent in that number,” he said.

 

(Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association intern Alyssa Biederman contributed to this story.) PennLive and The Patriot-News are partners with PA Post.

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