IW Schools: Most ‘lunch debt’ from families that can pay

Published 5:17 am Saturday, March 2, 2019

Division to involve county treasurer in debt collection



[Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part article about “lunch debt,” which the Isle of Wight County School division is facing. The second half will be published on Saturday, March 9.]


Isle of Wight County Schools officials say a majority of the $72,000-plus “lunch debt” reported as of Dec. 31, 2018 — this being debt that students incur when they do not have money to pay for lunch, but are still provided with a meal — is from those whose families appear to have the ability to pay.

School division staff, in early February, determined that of the total debt, over $60,000 is from students whose families have either not applied for free or reduced-price lunches and/or are above the income threshold to qualify.

Each student has a code in the division’s meal database identifying the student as free, reduced or full price meals, allowing us to identify the debt per group,” explained Lynn Briggs, the division’s director of community and media relations.

To qualify for reduced-price lunches, a household of three must earn $38,443 or less annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. For free lunches, that threshold is $27,014 or less, also for a household of three.

Students from families who apply for free or reduced-price lunch and meet this criteria are coded in the database accordingly, Briggs explained. However, there is a deadline for re-applying each fall. Families who qualified the previous year can continue that status until October, but sometimes the paperwork for the new school year isn’t received or processed before that deadline. These students, as a result, may incur debt during the lapse between the October deadline and the date their new applications are approved.

It appears we can apply to be reimbursed for that debt, so we are not contacting those parents,” Briggs said. “We are only contacting parents whose students are considered Full Price students and have a negative balance.”

On Feb. 5, the school division began making daily “robo-calls” to parents of said full-price students whose accounts showed a negative balance, and mailing letters to parents whose children owed $25 or more. According to Briggs, this letter informed parents of the debt and of the new consequences the School Board adopted during its Jan. 10 meeting.

School Board Policy JHCH now states that students who owe $10 or more will be unable to participate in certain supplementary school activities until the debt is cleared. These include school-sponsored dances or events in which students are required to pay, such as the Windsor 5K race; competitive events in which students are required to pay such as Beta Club, Junior Beta Club or the Polar Plunge; and Virginia High School League activities, including sports, band and debate. At the high school level, parking passes, school-issued laptops or iPads, and participation in graduation are also subject to being taken away due to unpaid debt.

The policy also now includes language mandated by Virginia House Bill 50, which Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law in March 2018. This language states that students who cannot pay for a meal or who owe a meal debt are not required to do chores or other work to pay for said meal or wear a wristband or hand stamp. It also reaffirms Isle of Wight County Schools’ policy of not denying any student a school meal.

The practice of providing students an alternative lunch does not appear to have been in policy, but it was the procedure we were following for students with negative accounts [prior to 2016],” Briggs said. “It was discussed at a board meeting in 2016 and the decision was made to discontinue that practice, since the reimbursable lunch was going in the trash can, which seemed like a waste of good food.”