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Scofflaw parents run up $32K unpaid lunch bill in Claremont schools

Union Leader Correspondent

October 08. 2018 4:12PM

 (Kimberly Houghton/Union Leader Correspondent)

CLAREMONT — The school board is considering hiring a collection agency to deal with more than $32,000 in unpaid school lunch bills.

“There are really no good answers,” said school board member Jason Benware. “We have to think about (doing) something.”

Mike O’Neill, the district’s business manager, has been sending letters home to parents who owe money to little effect. He plans to write off all the debt that is less than $20, and focus on the parents who have larger lunch money bills.

Benware said eliminating all debt under $20 still leaves about 80 percent of the total unpaid bill. It doesn’t make sense for district staff to spend time going after the smaller debts, Benware said.

It’s still undecided how the district will go after the remaining debt, but the board will discuss hiring a collection agency, Benware said.

The plan to go after parents through collection doesn’t sit right with at-large City Councilor Nick Koloski.

“I’m not sure hiring a collection agency to shake down folks to only collect a cut of what is owed is the best approach,” he said.

Koloski said many people in the city who qualify for programs like free and reduced lunch won’t sign up out of sense of pride.

“These are good folks fallen upon hard times not looking for a free ride,” he said.

Benware said the district won’t turn away students who don’t have money to pay. Everyone gets fed. While there are some people who qualify for free or reduced lunch who haven’t signed up, it’s also believed that some people who can afford to pay are simply not paying.

“If you can truly afford the food bill and are just choosing not to pay, shame on you,” Koloski said.

The unpaid lunch money is just one of the district’s lunch problems this year. The district has already been forced to cancel a universal free lunch program started at the Bluff Elementary School because district staff didn’t complete the correct paperwork for the federal program.

“The paperwork didn’t get filed that needed to get filed,” Benware said.

District staff found out Bluff qualified for the federal program in August, and the district had been giving out free lunches to all students there since the start of the year. O’Neill reported to the board at the end of September that Bluff would not be getting the federal funds to cover the program because of the paperwork glitch, and it was decided to cancel the free lunches starting this month.

Benware is confident the paperwork will be filed correctly in order to offer the universal free lunch program at Bluff next school year.

Benware attributed the paperwork misstep to the current administrative transition. The board forced out Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin over the summer after he clashed with board members over budget cuts. The district is currently searching for a full-time replacement, and Keith Pfeifer is serving as the interim superintendent.

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