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March 2, 2013

No free lunch: Schools target delinquencies

— When Mary Beth Whited took over as superintendent of Penn Cambria School District, one of her greatest challenges was collecting one of the smallest items in a family budget.

Many parents in the district whose households did not meet the free and reduced lunch guidelines simply were not paying for their children to eat the meals provided in the cafeterias.

Whited is hesitant to divulge how bad the problem was, but admits the total delinquent amount was in the tens of thousands of dollars.

That was 2006, and Whited set up a program to take delinquent accounts to the local district judge in the hopes of getting payment.

“But we found they didn’t pay at the district justice,” she said. “Our lunch program was reaching massive deficits due to unpaid accounts.”

So she and her staff decided it was time to get tough.

They negotiated a deal with Penn Cambria’s tax collector and now have a system in place. It allows the district to place a lien on the home of parents who refuse to pay.

“That was three years ago, and since then we’ve had very few problems,” she said.

But it takes an aggressive approach of automated phone calls to homes when delinquent cafeteria accounts fall below a $5 balance. Those calls go out in the evening when many parents are usually around. Delinquent notices are sent in the mail monthly, she said.

Getting parents to pay up for lunch is one aspect of education that Cambria County superintendents are aware of and often is a topic of discussion when they meet.

While no one revealed problems as critical as Penn Cambria’s, most say they work to help parents avoid large delinquent balances.

The bottom line, most superintendents said, is ensuring a child, especially in the elementary grades, has something to eat even if parents aren’t paying.

It’s often a peanut butter and jelly, egg salad or cheese sandwich, with an apple and carton of milk.

“We have a set lunch for those who don’t pay,” said Portage Area School District Superintendent Richard Bernazzoli. “It used to be peanut butter and jelly, then we were using tuna. Now it’s egg salad.”

The menu for nonpayers is based on what the district can get at the most reasonable price, he said.

Despite the sagging economy, Portage is doing pretty well, but staffers work to keep the money coming in.

“Parents understand we can’t run this for free. Somebody has to pay,” he said. “We’ve tried to avoid going to the district justice and parents have responded.”

The issue of a child in the Northern Cambria School District went viral recently when a Facebook post claimed a child was embarrassed by the way a district worker handled an alternative lunch for a non-payer.

“When a child is overdue on their lunch account, the cafeteria manager will stand in line and rip the regular lunch from the child ... and replace (it) with dry bread and tuna.” the parent wrote. “The staff will harass the child for payment before this is done.”

Questions have been raised about whether the incident occurred as portrayed in the post, but Northern Cambria Superintendent John Jubas said he is doing all he can to make sure no child is embarrassed over school lunch payments. But he points out that accounts must be kept current.

“I met with the staff on this. The people are working on it,” he said. “We would never deprive a child of a lunch, but we’re asking the parents to assume some responsibility for the bill.”

Jubas and his staff are making a concerted effort to notify parents of income guidelines for free and reduced lunches, because he is convinced a large majority of those eligible are not taking advantage of the government-subsidized nutrition program.

In the Greater Johnstown School District, 84 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunches, one of the highest rates in the state. But the district still works to keep other households current, Superintendent Gerald Zahorchak said.

“Absolutely, it’s a problem and the district has an obligation and responsibility to the rest of the residents,” to see all who are required to pay stay current, he said.

Johnstown food service director Dave Trout said the alternative lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and milk, served to elementary students and on a limited basis to high schoolers, often is effective.

“When you start to take the lunch, suddenly the money appears,” he said.

Officials in many districts including Johnstown and Central Cambria, tell of staff who, when aware of a student with a delinquent account, at times will pay for a lunch from their own pocket.

“It’s not really a problem here, but we do seem to have a problem at a certain time of the year – Christmastime,” said Central Cambria Superintendent Vincent DeLeo.

When a balance goes over $10, the principal is asked to intervene to determine if something has changed in the family, DeLeo said.

Problems with delinquent lunch accounts in Richland School District usually are few, said Superintendent Tom Fleming, who put the number at about 10 parents a year.

Special steps are taken to make sure the delinquency notice gets to the parents.

Taking the accounts to the local district judge has proven effective at Glendale School District in Flinton, said Superintendent Arnold Nadonley.

“The cafeteria in a small school often is operated at a loss, and we do contribute from the general fund. So all the taxpayers are helping to pay,” he said.

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