In Riverhead, pay that meal money — or else

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09/21/2014 2:00 PM |

Riverhead school officials are touting the district’s meal repayment program after recouping nearly $17,000 during its first year of implementation.

The school board updated the policy last summer, which requires all seniors to pay off any lunch debt or be banned from participating in their class’s graduation ceremony. Outstanding bills could also be sent to a debt collection agency under the new plan.

Elementary school students enjoying lunch. (Credit: Times/Review stock art)

Elementary school students enjoying lunch. (Credit: Times/Review stock art)

Superintendent Nancy Carney said although the district hasn’t had to go to those extremes, the new policy is necessary to make the district’s meal program, which isn’t paid for through the general fund, more sustainable.

“This was the first year the policy was in effect and the reduction in debt was remarkably successful,” Ms. Carney said. “After students graduate and separate from the district, it is very difficult to compel payment. For this reason, the board instituted the policy of requiring payment before participating in graduation exercises.”

Lunch costs $2.75 for secondary students and $2.25 for elementary school students. Of the district’s 5,100 students, about 49 percent receive free or reduced meals through a program for low-income families.

The new policy targets “full-pay students,” Ms. Carney said, meaning students that aren’t receiving free or reduced-price meals. Of the current meal debt incurred by full-pay students, nearly $51,000 is outstanding, she said.

Currently, 47 seniors owe a combined total of $6,510, she said. Twenty of those seniors owe less than $20 each.

Of the 66 seniors who owed money at the end of last school year, Ms. Carney said only three failed to pay off their balances, which totaled $400.

Those students, however, were already ineligible to participate in graduation “due to academic issues,” she said.

Seniors paid $12,000 of the $17,000 total collected from full-pay students’ outstanding debt last year, Ms. Carney said, adding that $12,000 represents an average debt per class.

“We have seen that the new policy is working because this year’s senior class owes only $6,500,” she said. “We are hopeful that, as time moves along, parents will realize payment of meals is important for the program and for their children.”

Despite the district’s hopes for its new program, not everyone is a fan.

Denise Naso of Flanders contacted the News-Review last month after the district sent her a letter stating that her son, a fifth-grader at Pulaski Street School, owed more than $200. She also received a printout of her son’s meal purchase activity at Phillips Avenue Elementary School dating back to the time he was a kindergartner. Although she admitted to ignoring robo-calls about the outstanding debt, she said did she so because her son had been bullied and believes the bully’s parents are responsible for the bill.

Ms. Naso said she told the school her son wasn’t allowed to charge for lunch after she received a bill when he was in kindergarten since he was sent to school with either a packed lunch or money. When her son was in first grade, Ms. Naso said administrators confirmed he had been “bullied out of his money” and that they allowed him to charge meals during that time period.

She also disputed the accuracy of the report, claiming the family was on vacation on some of the dates for which breakfast and lunch charges were listed.

“I just want fairness,” Ms. Naso said. “They have an admission from the kid and I’m still getting bills!”

She copied the News-Review on an Aug. 8 email to the district expressing her concern and said last Wednesday the district has yet to respond.

Ms. Carney declined to comment on Ms. Naso’s situation and said parents are encouraged to contact the district to discuss repayment options.

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