Lunch bill woes hard to swallow

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$20K in outstanding bills has MFL MarMac searching for solutions

 

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

MFL MarMac is searching for solutions to deal with $20,000 in outstanding lunch bills. 

“This is an ugly problem,” said superintendent Dale Crozier, who asked the school board for suggestions at its Aug. 8 meeting. “We have a lot of people who owe us for lunches. We need to do something.”

Crozier estimated 75 accounts are currently delinquent, with one as high as $1,500 in the red. A couple have reached $700, while several more are $500 behind.

Of those 75, Crozier said the district does not expect around 20 of them to pay.

This is not the first time unpaid lunch bills have been an issue. For several years, said business manager Cindy Koons, “it’s been anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 when we close the books.” That’s the highest amount among area districts, she added.

Crozier said some of the delinquent accounts are attributable to families moving away from the district, leaving their accounts unpaid and little recourse available to collect the money. Other families can’t keep up as they go in and out of receiving free/reduced lunches, he said. Some people simply choose not to pay.

MFL MarMac has tried several tactics to recoup the money, while also trying to prevent people from continually going into the red. 

If an account nears zero, or below, parents are notified. Students whose parents are not paying their lunch bills are often discouraged from getting extras at lunch.

When the new school year begins, families are told at registration to settle any outstanding lunch balances. Registration was held in Monona Monday and will be held in McGregor Thursday, said elementary principal Kathy Koether, who noted it will be interesting to discover if any of the accounts were settled.

Crozier said the district has taken some people to small claims court, but with modest monetary gains.

Administrators and food service director Pat Echard have also discreetly met with families to attempt to remedy the situation, whether that means developing a payment plan or filling out paperwork to receive free/reduced lunches, if the family is eligible.

“Some people get in a situation where it’s hard because they owe so much,” Crozier said, “but we’ll work with them.”

“We’ll help them fill out forms, anything we can,” Koether added. “We need to continue to tell families, ‘Let us help.’”

“We need to help them help us,”quipped school board member Collin Stubbs.

Of course, one solution, which some schools have gone to, is to stop providing kids with a full meal, instead giving just a peanut butter sandwich.

“But do you punish a kid for the irresponsibility of a parent?” Crozier questioned. “It’s a philosophical question I’ve asked since I became a superintendent.”

“How’s it look to be a school who refuses food to students?” wondered school board member Tonya Meyer.

Fellow school board member Jonathon Moser agreed it’s not right to punish kids because their parents have not paid, but said the district also needs to look at the business aspect of the situation.

“Something needs to be done to whittle away,” he said, advocating for a policy that would draw a line where, if the parents don’t pay, the kids don’t eat a full meal.

“People have to learn the consequences of not paying bills,” stated Sharon Greener, the school board’s vice president. “Some people rely on the fact that the school will keep feeding [their kids]. They rely on that mentality.”

Aside from continuing to limit students whose parents have not paid their lunch bills from getting extras at lunch, it was suggested to cut people off once they reach $300 in the red.

“$300 is a liberal number, but it’s a start,” Crozier said.

Greener worried the amount was too high, and that setting a limit would have the opposite effect, with parents deciding not to pay the bill until it reaches that amount. After paying the bill off, she speculated the family would soon be back in the red.

The board made no official decisions and will continue to search for possible solutions.

“It’s not easy,” Stubbs mentioned. “One-size-fits-all rules aren’t going to fix this.”

Grant

Crozier informed the board that the district received a Decat grant through HAWC Partnerships for Children Area, which serves Howard, Allamakee, Winneshiek and Clayton Counties. The grant, for up to $10,000, will go toward before and after school programming, he said, namely the school’s TNT (teaching and tutoring) program. 

“We’ll expand it from two to three days [per week],” he said, noting that, before school, he would like to have a tutor, whether it’s a para-professional or teacher, available in the high school.

Koether said HAWC has also been helpful to the district in providing families with scholarships for the district’s 3-year-old kindergarten program. Last year, eight families received scholarships, she said, and it could be more this year.

Projects

Crozier updated the school board on several projects or purchases the district has completed in the past year, including purchasing a suburban, putting up wayfinding signage in the schools, installing new bleachers at both the Monona and McGregor Centers, putting in a new playground at the McGregor Center, creating a 21st century classroom in the high school, improving football field lighting and continuing maintenance on the buildings, like roofing and tuckpointing. Aside from the new bleachers at the McGregor Center, the gym also has an updated ceiling and fans. More air conditioning has been added and the back of the building is getting a paint job. At the Monona Center, the security and camera systems are being upgraded and expanded.

“We’re getting to the point where we’ve addressed a lot of our issues,” Crozier said.

Next on the list, he noted, are baseball lights and better outside wayfinding signage. 

A facility committee will also be formed to address elementary space issues, as well as gym/athletic space issues.

Retiring staff recognition

Retiring staff were recognized, including Donna Anderson (27 years), Georgia Jones (12 years), James Elliott (15 years), Rebecca Ford (10 years) and Julie Mullarkey (26 years).

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