CLAREMONT — Students in the city schools owe around $42,000 for meals this school year, with the district seeing about $5,000 added to that number per month, according to Richard Seaman, director of finance operations and human resources for School Administrative Unit #6.
Unless there are donors, like the individual who paid off nearly $30,000 in lunch debt last school year, the district will have to find a way to deal with the debt, deciding where to get the funds, Seaman told members of the Claremont School Board.
“We’re going to have to write this off at some time,” he said.
Danielle Skinner, the food service coordinator for the district, told school board members she is exhausting what she can do to encourage families to get the debts paid. She sends certified letters, makes calls, tries to sign up families for payment plans, and works to get families who qualify into the federal free and reduced lunch program. And still the debts continue to accrue, she said. Skinner said she’d like to have some ability to hold some of the families to account.
Last school year, when the board learned that the school lunch debt had surpassed $30,000, the board considered hiring a debt collector to deal with the issue. Public outcry halted that plan, and members of the community, including an anonymous donor paying close to $30,000, took care of all the debt.
While that debt got wiped out, the problem of families not paying for their children’s meals remained.
The district now has 590 accounts that owe about $42,000 in total. Of those accounts, 142 owe more than $100 each, for a total of $33,000. Out of those 142, Skinner said, 54 accounts make up $14,000 in debt.
Board member Jason Benware wondered if it would be simpler, and cheaper, for the district to simply pay for all of the lunches for all of the students. He’d like to see information developed for voters to see what the costs are for different options.
“My suggestion would be to put it on the warrant,” Benware said.
Benware said families know the district has a policy to feed students no matter the ability to pay. There are about 1,900 students in the district; the lunch costs $3 per student, breakfast costs $1.75 per student, and there are 175 days in the school year.
Skinner said if Claremont decided to manage its own lunch program while trying to remain qualified for federal lunch aid, it would face price controls, dietary mandates and other restrictions. Benware said the district is always going to have some level of unpaid lunch debt.
“Right now we have kids who don’t pay and we cover the cost,” he said.