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Past-due school lunch accounts on rise

With delinquent school lunch payments mounting, Perham-Dent school officials are cooking up a new policy intended to limit free lunches without making kids go hungry.

The unpaid lunch deficit generated more than a half-hour discussion at the November 18 school board meeting. Board members had a difficult time coming to terms with the problem.

A rough draft policy was tabled for revisions, and the board is expected to make a second run at a school lunch policy at the December meeting.

In many cases, it isn't an issue as to whether or not parents have the money, said Superintendent Tamara Uselman.

"More than anything, we have busy people who simply don't have time to monitor their lunch accounts," said Uselman in an interview. "We need to figure out a way to be faster with our notification."

Still, it has "been a tough year for people," acknowledged Uselman, and the number of delinquent accounts has risen substantially during these tough economic times.

Automated phone calls and automated emails to parents, informing them when accounts are overdue, is one direction the school will go.

Sending slips home with the students is hit and miss-depending on whether kids actually get the message from Point A to Point B.

Hand stamps, perhaps with a smiley face, can be placed on an elementary student's hand-which alert parents that lunch fees are due. But School Board Chairman Jim Rieber was reluctant to do this because he feared students who get the stamp will be stigmatized.

There are also procedural issues. When a young student goes through the lunch line­-how do you tactfully deny lunch or re-route the student without calling attention?

"I don't think you want us to embarrass the kid," said middle school principal Scott Bjerke.

If student lunch accounts are delinquent, they can eat a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich and milk for free, as it meets the minimum dietary requirements.

"We won't have a hungry child in school," said Uselman.

"It's hard not to give a kid lunch," said board member Sue Von Ruden.

The truth is, Perham school staff members have been too kind, benevolent and lenient. It is very infrequent that a student is denied a hot lunch.

Some schools actually make the students put down their tray, and parents are called immediately, when a student is delinquent. Some monitor the accounts closely, and won't let students into the lunch line, said Uselman in an interview.

"We've never been that harsh, and I don't think we ever will be," said Uselman.

Any family that is in a hardship situation can talk with school officials about a payment plan-or apply for qualification under the federal free and reduced lunch program, which then helps subsidize the school. Family pride is a factor in many cases, as parents are reluctant to apply for relief-even though they may qualify under income guidelines.

"We'll work with any family that is struggling," said Uselman, noting that there are local and area organizations such as "Womenade" that have helped provide lunch money to low income families. "What doesn't work is for parents to completely ignore the responsibility."

Budget cuts, which have reduced support staff, are a factor with the mounting number of unpaid lunches.

"We don't have enough people left," said Superintendent Uselman. Up until about two years ago, there was a part-time lunch secretary assignment, which helped maintain contact with parents and keep current with the lunch accounts. Now, those duties have shifted to other clerical staff who have less time to devote to the task, said Uselman.

Food service includes all costs of preparing, serving, delivering and billing for breakfast and lunch. The overall food service fund is separate from the general fund, according to Kristi Werner, school business manager.

Revenue sources include both reimbursement from the state and federal government and sales of breakfast and lunches to students and staff.

There are as many as 1500 students who may eat on any given day and the school also delivers meals to the parochial schools and the Early Childhood Center.

"At the end of the 2008-09 school year we had a higher amount due then we had had in the last several years," said Werner. "Much of that has been made current through payment for this school year, but unfortunately we do still have many account with amounts due. We stay on those bills due and work to collect the amount due... even if payment is made a year or more later."

Minnesota school rules mandate that the food service fund cannot be negatvie for more then two years.

At the end of 2008-09, Perham's food service had a positive balance and there was no transfer made from the school's financially strapped general fund.