Claremont raising $32K to pay off accumulated school lunch debt of parents who failed to payBy DAMIEN FISHER
Union Leader Correspondent
October 11. 2018 9:49AM
CLAREMONT — Community members are starting fundraising campaigns to pay off more than $32,000 in hot lunch debt and stop the district from hiring a collection agency to go after families.
The district alerted the school board last week that it is running more than $32,000 in debt from the lunch program. The board is set to meet Sunday to consider a proposal to hire a collection agency to recoup the money.
“I don’t think the answer is to shake down people for lunch money,” said Nick Koloski, an at-large city councilor.
Koloski started a Facebook fundraiser to get at least $500 to help pay down the bill for city parents.
“I started off with a goal of $500, and overnight I got $1,500,” Koloski said.
Keith Pfeifer, SAU 6’s interim superintendant, said donations are welcome, but the district is looking at other solutions to deal with the debt.
“We welcome that if that’s what they wish to do,” Pfeifer said. “We appreciate every cent.”
Claremont’s school district handles the billing for the hot lunch program, though the actual preparation, serving and point of sale exchanges are handled by the Abby Group, a third-party vendor, he said.
Pfeifer said there are a variety of reasons for some families to have racked up significant debts for lunches, some as high as $700. In some cases, students take the lunch without knowing there is a cost. As a matter of policy, Pfeifer said, Claremont always serves lunch to students regardless of ability to pay.
Some families also may be experiencing difficult financial times and are unable to pay, and may be unwilling to file for the Free or Reduced Lunch Program.
“Some families don’t want to enter their financial information for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program,” Pfeifer said. “They consider it government snooping.”
Claremont more than doubles the state average for Free and Reduced Lunch Program eligibility already, according to information from the New Hampshire Department of Education.
State averages for elementary schools is more than 26 percent of enrolled students are eligible for the program. In Claremont, more than 69 percent of students at Bluff Elementary School are eligible. More than 50 percent for the middle school and Disnard Elementary, and 47 percent for Maple Avenue School and 42 percent for Stevens High School.
Pfeifer said most districts in the state run some kind of lunch deficit, though Anthony Schinella, communications director with the New Hampshire Department of Education said such significant debts are discouraged.
“The New Hampshire DOE recommends that school districts have procedures in place to deal with the debt as well as how they address meal-charging policies in order to prepare for any debt, keep track of households that fail to pay for a child’s meal, etc,” he said.
In Keene, the food service department intervenes with families before bills get out of hand, said Superintendent Robert Malay.
“We try to be extraordinarily proactive right from the beginning,” Malay said.
Unity resident Kelly Simpson was shocked when she heard about the debts. She said the district should have stepped in and worked with families before it got to the point of considering a collection agency.
“Now you’re harassing parents for money due,” she said.
Simpson has started her own fundraiser, sending in $10 to the district, and hoping to get another 3,199 people to do the same.
Pfeifer said the district has already reduced the amount owed by writing off the debts that are under $20.
Koloski plans to bring the board a check for the money he raises at the next meeting. So far, board members have not responded to his concerns, including parents he’s talked to being double billed for meals.