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Late lunch fees adding up

February 10, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

There's no such thing as a free lunch.

Just ask area school officials trying to track down parents who haven't paid off their children's overdue lunch charges.

While Washington County Public Schools tries to keep its lunch fee deficit to less than $15,000, school officials in Berkeley County, W.Va., are trying to knock down $244,000 in back lunch bills, and the Chambersburg (Pa.) Area School District is dealing with a $600 deficit.

Washington County, with more than 19,500 students, and Chambersburg Area School District, with about 8,000 students, use a lunch-charging procedure in which students' parents can pay in advance for their children's lunches and put the balance on a charge card.

"It's kind of like your bank debit card. Whatever you use keeps getting deducted from your account," said Ann Ziobrowski, food service director for Chambersburg Area School District.

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When the balance gets to zero, both Washington County and Chambersburg try to keep additional lunch charges to a minimum by using different billing strategies.

By the end of the year, if the school lunch fees aren't paid back to the school system, both school systems write off the uncollected money and start the new year with a clean slate.

But Berkeley County, with about 13,000 students, doesn't use the advance payment system and isn't allowed by West Virginia law to write off any uncollected debt, said Jim Welton, assistant superintendent of finance for Berkeley County Schools.

The school system's deficit keeps accumulating and they have no way of breaking it down year by year, he said.

Welton said of the $244,000 deficit, $102,000 is a debt accumulated from people no longer in the school system.

He said the school system has $80,000 in magistrate claims against people who have not paid their debts.

It costs $60 to file the court case and have it served, which is included in the total debt, Welton said.

The school system has set a lunch charge limit of $60, which was raised from the 1999 limit of $50, he said. Once charges exceed that limit, the school system sends out reminders to parents, he said.

Welton said the school system is looking for ways to reduce the debt.

One idea is to keep high school transcripts from being sent to colleges so debts will be paid off before the student graduates.

Also, Welton said the county has looked into creating an advanced payment system like those used in Washington County and Chambersburg.

Gary Dodds, Washington County Public Schools food and nutrition supervisor, said in addition to a prepaid operation, Washington County Schools put a new procedure in place in September to entice parents to pay off debts.

He said in the past, principals have withheld report cards, but the school system was told that the school meal program could not interfere with academic programs.

A $20,000 deficit in lunch money fees for Washington County in the 2000-01 school year, which doubled from $10,000 in the 1999-2000 school year, prompted school officials to change the procedures for charging school meals, Dodds said.

The deficit was $15,000 during the last school year, he said.

In Washington County elementary schools, students are allowed to charge their meals three times at the cafeteria if their prepaid account is empty or if they don't have the money to pay for lunch. Middle-school students are allowed to charge once and high school students are not allowed to charge, he said.

Originally, just before the students met their charge cutoff, cafeteria staff would send a slip home to parents and later call to let them know that the next time lunch is charged, cafeteria personnel would be forced to substitute a regular lunch entree with fruits and vegetables.

Dodds said parents and students complained, so the school system amended the policy by replacing the regular main entree with a bologna and cheese sandwich.

He said his department tried to pick an item that would satisfy hunger, but one that would still make students go back to their parents to complain about what they had to eat.

Dodds said he already is seeing a difference in charging deficits.

The lunch charge deficit so far this year is $2,156, he said.

Chambersburg Area School District is in the process of establishing a prepaid system in its schools, Ziobrowski said. She hopes to have it in place in three more elementary schools by the end of the school year.

"When they get to three lunch charges, we send notices home with kids and try to keep on top of it," she said.

Ziobrowski said all grade levels are allowed to charge. Different schools have different procedures for withholding report cards or other disciplinary actions, she said.

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