The Kelso School District’s lunch debt needs to go on a diet. In just two years, the district’s unpaid lunch fees jumped from just under $9,000 to more than $28,000. District officials said a 2018 law is behind the massive increase.
Superintendent Mary Beth Tack said the law, known as the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act, was created with the intent to help students but has had serious, and unforeseen, consequences as the cost of the unpaid lunches comes from the district’s general fund.
“Food and nutrition is essential for students, but the impact is on us now,” Tack said. “It’s affecting our funds.”
That number does not include the cost of lunches for students who are part of the free and reduced lunch program, Scott Westlund, chief financial officer for the district. Districts are reimbursed for those lunches by the federal government.
Over the 2016-17 school year, student lunch fines totaled $8,700. In the 2017-18 year, the fines ballooned to $17,900. This past year, students had $28,680 in unpaid lunch fees, according to Westlund.
That doesn’t include any debts at the elementary school level, because the accounting software the district uses doesn’t consider unpaid lunches a “student fee” until a student reaches fifth grade, Westlund said, so the number is likely higher.
“When you start to get up into the number we’re at, you’re talking about district resources we could use to pay for another staff position,” Westlund said.
Westlund said districts across the state are experiencing a similar issue because of the law.
The law mandates that schools may not take any action to stigmatize or shame a student who does not have money, take a lunch away from a student who does not have enough money, or give students without enough money in their accounts an alternative lunch.
Westlund said the law was based on a perception that school districts were refusing to serve students meals, or taking away a lunch a student already had and giving them something like a cheese sandwich instead.
However, he said Kelso had been in compliance with the law before it went into effect. While the district used to provide alternative meals, they stopped the practice more than five years ago, he said.
And prior to this law, Westlund said the amount of unpaid lunch fees had been stable.
“Before (the debt) was kept within a reasonable number,” Westlund said. “And usually they pay it off before they graduate high school.”
Westlund said he believes the reason the amount jumped isn’t because parents are purposefully not providing money for their students’ accounts. Rather, as laws against “lunch shaming” reached national news, he thinks students realized that they could get a school lunch even if their parents had packed them a lunch.
“Students realized they don’t have to have money in the account to have the ability to grab lunch,” Westlund said.
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While Westlund said he hopes the number of students who take advantage of the law is small, the amount is becoming unwieldy, for both the district and parents.
“It’s going to be quite a challenge to get ahead of this,” Westlund said.
So far, the district is following its usual protocol of sending emails and letters home when a student’s account drops below zero, Westlund said. If the debt persists, he said the district will also call parents to ask them to add funds to the account.
Every fall, he said the district sends out free and reduced lunch program application forms, which the new law requires.
The law also includes a provision that asks assistant principals and school councilors to get involved if a student has more than five unpaid meals, to find out if there are any barriers to the family paying.
While Westlund said it’s always good to have “one more set of eyes” on the issue, these measures are no longer keeping the debt in check.
This year, the district started to send home forms asking if parents wanted their student to be buying a lunch, Westlund said. That’s because last year, he said some parents had been calling and saying they packed their student lunches and didn’t want them to buying a school lunch.
However, even if a parent marks that they don’t want their student to buy lunch, the school legally can’t stop students from purchasing a lunch under the law, Westlund said.
“If a student comes up to the cash register with food, we’ll still charge them,” Westlund said.
He said the difference is that a note will pop up on the cash register screen about the parent’s preference, and the district will notify the parent that their student is purchasing a lunch.
Westlund said the district has done that a few times already this year, but the fees are still adding up. He said the state legislature has so far not yet made any moves to provide funding to schools to help cover the difference.
The state provides less than 1% of the district’s nutrition budget, Westlund said, while the federal government provides close to 95%. While he said more state funding would be welcome, he knows that would take time to enact.
For now, Westlund said, the district is trying to stop the steep upward trend of the fee amounts.
“We’re trying to figure out how we move forward with this, because it doesn’t seem to be working,” Westlund said.