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Willmar Schools considers new policy to recover lunch debt

Briana Sanchez / Tribune file photo A new policy under consideration by the Willmar School Board could lead to the district refusing to feed secondary students whose parents are not paying into their lunch accounts.

WILLMAR — A new policy under consideration by the Willmar School Board could lead to the district refusing to feed secondary students whose parents are not paying into their lunch accounts.

Parents' refusal to pay after the account has gone to conciliation court could also result in the district limiting students' access to extracurricular activities and school dances.

The policy was discussed briefly at Monday's School Board meeting, when it received its first reading. The policy is set to receive its second reading and final approval at a special meeting at 7:30 a.m. Aug. 28. The board scheduled that meeting to canvass the results of the Aug. 22 School Board special election.

"People who are subject to a policy like this are people who we've made a significant effort to get them to pay their debt for lunches; many of them are choosing not to for whatever reason," said Superintendent Jeff Holm. "I think we'll go the extra mile to work with a family, if they are showing a good faith effort to pay their debt."

Many families in the district are eligible for a federal program for free or reduced-price meals, and the school district encourages all families to apply before school starts. If their financial situation changes during the school year, families can apply for free or reduced meals at any time.

Several years ago, the district stopped the practice of taking trays of food away from secondary students whose lunch accounts were empty. It also stopped offering sandwich-and-milk meal substitutes to students with empty accounts and instead offered full school meals to all.

The new policy takes a step back from that by implementing a progressive system of collecting unpaid meal balances from parents.

In the policy, meals will always be served to children whose families qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

For other students, the district will notify parents when a student lunch account is at $10 or less. Cafeteria staff will also tell secondary students in person.

For accounts that fall below zero, the district will continue feeding students, but they will not be allowed to purchase a la carte items or second entrees.

The policy lays out the efforts the school district will follow to try to collect debts.

First, a child's principal will contact the family to discuss the debt and the family's responsibility in paying for meals. Then a certified letter will be sent to the household, notifying them that the district plans to seek payment through conciliation court.

If there's no response from the family within two weeks after a conciliation court judgment, elementary students will be fed, but students in middle or high school will not be fed. They will have to provide their own meals.

If a family is not making an effort to pay off the debt, the final consequences will fall on students:

• A middle or high school student won't be able to start an extracurricular activity or sport.

• A middle school student won't be able to attend a school dance.

• A high school student won't be able to attend prom.

• A high school student won't be issued a parking pass.

Beginning in winter 2014, the school district began serving school meals to all students and stopped the practice of taking trays away from students whose lunch accounts were found to be empty.

That practice stopped after a Willmar Senior High student saw it happen to a boy ahead of her in the lunch line. She bought his lunch and gave it to him; then she wrote a letter to the West Central Tribune.

The district changed its policy and decided to provide meals to all students after several news stories, other letters to the editor and dozens of comments on the Tribune's Facebook page.

The district has a Cardinal Care Fund that is also designated to help pay off unpaid lunch accounts. However, it does not have enough money in it to pay off all the overdue accounts.

Donations to the Cardinal Care Fund may be sent to Willmar Public Schools, 611 Fifth St. S.W., Willmar, MN 56201.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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