MCPS has ‘significant outstanding balances’ for student meals

At Monday’s Mecklenburg County School Board meeting, the group discussed the current debt owed to the school system for school lunches/breakfasts that have been served to students but not yet paid for.

Mecklenburg County Public Schools does not turn away hungry students, even if they do not have money for their meal. Instead, schools will provide the student in need with a meal and bill the parents for the costs.

MCPS Food Services Director Robin Moore informed the board on Monday that currently, the school is owed more than $6,000 in these outstanding meal debts.

“As of Aug. 30, 2016, we had a total of $6,163.82,” Moore said of the debt. “As of Sept. 15, 2016, we have an outstanding balance of $6,804.04 on student bill balances divisionwide.”

She noted that families have the option to apply for free and reduced-priced school meals for their kids’ school lunches and breakfasts, as well as having payment plan options for outstanding meal balances, all in addition to being able to utilize “My School Bucks” and pay for meals online.

“We have made contact via phone and mail to parents of families with outstanding balances to no avail,” Moore said.

She suggested following suit with other schools in Virginia and setting a cap for the amount that each individual student can reach before being offered an “alternate meal option.” She recommended the cap amount be $10.

“We will not have them not being fed, but as far as meeting the expectations of a full priced meal, there would be less that’s there,” Superintendent Paul Nichols said.

Board Chair Dale Sturdifen asked what the “alternate meal” would consist of. Moore answered that an alternate breakfast would include cereal with milk and juice and an alternate lunch would include a cheese sandwich and juice.

The limited items offered in the alternate meal seemed to not sit well with several board members.

“I have mixed emotions about this,” spoke up board member Glenn Edwards. “The reason being, these kids are smarter than we think they are. After a couple of days, they will figure out whose parents haven’t paid and whose have, because the same child will be eating a cheese sandwich everyday. The kids that get fed will know that. So you are actually tagging a child without really tagging the child.

“I understand the money issue, but money is not everything. Children’s feelings mean a lot. Does $0.25 or $0.30 for a little bit of food really matter that much in a $48 million budget?”

Sturdifen questioned the success of implementing the alternate meal plan, asking how other schools that had adopted this plan faired.

“Along with Mr. Edwards, I am concerned,” Sturdifen said. “It’s unfortunate that the adults aren’t doing their part. However, when those kids come through the (meal) line, and they put their number in, they are going to be sent one direction or the other, and it’s going to be obvious. We should look for other solutions.”

Sturdifen suggested obtaining further information and partaking in further discussion before voting on the matter, saying the issue could be brought up next month.

Board member Wanda Bailey noted that she’s under the impression school systems statewide and nationwide are currently facing the same issue, and that those schools are “taking a stand, and while not turning a child away, setting a limit on the amount of debt.” She requested the average amount indebted students owe. Moore said she does not have that number available.

Sturdifen agreed that the information regarding students’ average debt is “pertinent” before the board can make a decision.

Board member Lindell Palmer suggested increasing the cap to possibly $25 or $30.

“Most school systems that I have been affiliated with have a cap, but I think $10 is a little low,” Palmer said.

The group agreed with Palmer, who made a motion to increase the cap but decided to delay the vote on the matter.

The motion in its entirety stated that the board wished to delay the vote, obtain more information, including the average amount of debt owed by the students, and increase the cap.

“Bailey pointed out that “in a 15-day period, the debt amount increases $700.”

“If we keep that pace, this could get out of hand,” she said.

The group proceeded to vote on Palmer’s motion, which passed with all except Bailey voting in favor.