PUBLISHERS NOTEBOOK: Many students paying for
lack of parents' payments
Wednesday, February 19, 2014 9:09 AM
A school lunch policy survey by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, an advocacy project for low-income citizens, has created quite a bit of interest in how schools in the state handle delinquent accounts. It has also raised philosophical questions about the role of schools in matters outside of education.
The survey found that at least 46 of the 350 school districts in the state have policies to immediately or eventually refuse hot lunches to students who are unable to pay. Just over half offer alternative lunches, which the group considers less nutritious, for students unable to pay while 32 percent always offer the full lunch that other students receive.
Of the districts in this immediate area, only Mabel-Canton and Spring Grove offer the full lunches even if the child's family doesn't pay. It should be noted that the survey is for reduced-price eligible children that have a 40-cent copay to eat lunch.
The reason the issue is coming to the forefront now is because in relatively rare cases that capture the public's attention, some schools take food away from students whose accounts aren't paid up, dumping the food into the trash in front of the students and their classmates. Others stamp reminders, such as "LUNCH" or "MONEY" on children's hands.
Although five of the seven districts our newspapers routinely cover don't provide full lunches for those unable to pay, it is likely none of them shame the students in a way that has garnered so much negative publicity.
As Ed Harris, superintendent of Chatfield schools, told the Post Bulletin, the district has a policy on the books to deny hot lunch to students that don't pay, but "we've never taken a tray away or denied anybody a lunch." If that happened, he's sure there would have been someone on his phone really upset.
And, as is likely the case across our coverage area, local school board members, who are close to the community in these smaller districts, would have heard about it as well and raised the issue prior to a survey forcing the issue.
Kingsland Superintendent John McDonald, when asked about it at an informal meeting, said the school has a policy on the books of offering an alternative lunch, but the district's priority is always to have administrators work with the family to find a solution. In most cases, that strategy has been successful; for example, one family recently caught up on a severely delinquent account once it received its income tax refund.
Looking at the issue from a school administrator's viewpoint, the school lunch budget often runs in the red as it is and school districts not only have problems with students eligible for reduced-price lunches, but also other students whose parents may simply not pay until the schools catch up to them. School districts are accountable to taxpayers, so they should be expected to collect the money owed to them.
The issue may be more prominent now as propane prices hit record highs and other economic factors stretch the budget of low-income families.
The variations in practices of school districts mirror the variations in reactions by the public.
The survey found that some districts justify their policy of pulling trays from students with unpaid balances as a way of teaching students accountability and responsibility. Others absolve themselves of responsibility, claiming that parents are the ultimate decision makers on whether their child eats.
Contrasting viewpoints that came out in the survey show some officials stating that the practices of providing alternative lunches or pulling trays are "unconscionable bullying." Several expressed concern that a healthy school lunch may be the only meal the child eats for the remainder of the day.
Yet another view by some districts is to employ a number of strategies to absorb the cost, including community and parent group angel accounts as well as allowing the students to eat full lunches by principal discretion, school board approved appropriations or waiting until parents are able to pay.
Gov. Mark Dayton, upon hearing the results of the survey, said he would include $3.5 million in his supplemental budget request to make sure low-income students aren't denied full hot lunches. His proposal would expand the free-lunch program to cover all children now under the reduced-price meals.
A total of 60,703 of Minnesota's 845,177 students receive reduced-price lunches for 40 cents each, according to the latest figures from the Minnesota Department of Education. Another 263,041 are eligible for free hot lunches. The public is already picking up the cost of these lunches.
Most of us would agree that parents should be held accountable and show personal responsibility.
Those who don't take responsibility put school officials in a difficult situation.
Even worse, those parents put their children in the middle of the difficult situation.
Children should not be subjected to humiliation, or even a subtle form of shaming, for the faults of their parents. They also don't deserve to go hungry, a condition that could impede their education.
How to protect children while also making parents accountable is the million-dollar question that we as a society have yet to answer. In Minnesota, it looks like the school lunch aspect of the issue will become the $3.5 million question that legislators will be grappling with during the upcoming session.
Whatever happens, children should not be made to pay - at least any more than they, in all probability, already are in other ways - for the failings of their parents.