A controversial campaign to collect nearly $46,000 in unpaid lunch balances accrued this year has caused a stir in the city.
On Dec. 5, families of all students in the Cranston Public Schools received a message, which stated the following:
“In the past, the school district has attempted to collect unpaid lunch balances without much success. Starting on September 1, 2016, through June 30, 2018, the school district has written off $95,508. This current year (2018-2019) the unpaid balance is $45,859.The District lunch program cannot continue to lose revenue. In an effort to reduce our unpaid balance, the District has retained the services of a collection agency. The company is Transworld Systems and they will begin their collection efforts effective January 2, 2019.”
The news was met with mixed responses from those who expressed their opinions on social media, and has made national headlines. The responses vary from those who believe lunch should be free for all students, and that the school department is wrong to go after those whose accounts are behind, to those who believe the school department is right in collecting the money owed for services provided which are at a cost to the school department.
Although the schools do participate in the universal breakfast program which is, in fact, free for all students, the lunch meals are not included in that program and do have a cost associated with them.
The current school year is not yet halfway through, as the mid-year point is in February. Thus, it is important to note that the $45,859 figure is only reflective of the first third of this school year.
The lunch debt collection issue is a not a new one, and as the statement reads, it is one that the district has been struggling with for several years as they tried to find a solution to the problem of unpaid lunch fees and has made it clear that they have gone through great lengths to avoid lunch shaming the students. Currently, students are not given different meals if they are carrying a balance, as is done in some school districts, and all children are still allowed to eat a school lunch, even if their account is in arrears.
According to a statement from Cranston School Committee Chairwoman Janice Ruggieri, that is not a route that the school district would take now or in the future.
“Cranston Public Schools has never denied any student from being fed and we never will,” the statement reads. “We have taken steps to ensure that students are not identified as being in arrears and have chosen to deal directly with the parents/guardians who are responsible for the payment of this service that is provided. Children whose families meet the required income levels can receive free lunch or a reduced lunch price, and there are many students who are enrolled in the free or reduced lunch programs. The breakdown of the number and percentage of children receiving those services school by school, statewide, are posted at ride.ri.gov/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/ERATE/Rhode-Island-Child-Nutrition-Eligibility-Report-2017.pdf.”
According to Ruggieris statement, the school department has been working diligently to reach out to families who have unpaid debts, a process which also carries a cost along with it.
“The Cranston School Department has been sending out thousands of letters each month to families who have accumulated a debt for unpaid lunches at a cost to the district. These letters are sent with an application for Free and Reduced Lunch Programs to offer families another opportunity to fill out the application to see if they qualify,” the statement reads. “Not every unpaid debt is a result of families who may otherwise qualify for free and/or reduced lunches. This process has been ongoing for several years with minimal results. As the unpaid debt has been increasing for several years the School Committee looked into other options to help resolve this issue.”
Since the 2013-14 school year, the cumulative debt is over $200,000.
Although questions have been raised as to what steps the school department and school committee have taken to help reach all families, Ruggieri’s statement addresses the fact that they have tried a variety of avenues to reach people not only through the mail or online but also in person and in many languages.
“Cranston Public Schools and the Cranston School Committee have taken several steps to alleviate the burden of this debt from the General Fund and from our struggling families. We have partnered with Aramark to attend all of our Open Houses to answer questions about the food service programs and to help families fill out applications for Free and Reduced lunch. This form is available in several languages,” the statement continues. “We have partnered with COZ to help identify families who may qualify and help them to fill out the paperwork. We have provided the paperwork online for ease of access and ease of submission.”
By working with the outside collection agency, it is the hope of the school committee that families who are eligible for the free or reduced lunch program will enroll in it. However, Ruggieri’s statement also emphasizes that the accounts in arrears are not solely from families who are in need, and in fact, spans all demographics.
“We are hopeful that by using an outside agency to try to collect this debt without affecting the credit rating of our families that this will encourage more eligible families to fill out the necessary paperwork,” it reads. “Again, it is important to note that this is not just an issue for struggling families. Based on the information regarding unpaid balances we know that sometimes this debt is an oversight or just not paid attention to while the service is still being provided.”
Although the news of the use of the collection agency was upsetting to many, Ruggieri noted that CPS is not the first school department to try this avenue.
“Cranston Public Schools is not the first district to use a collection agency to help with this issue. Districts across the country have used agencies for several years,” the statement said. “We will continue to monitor this policy and make any necessary adjustments as the year progresses.”
According to the plan, only the student accounts that owe $20 or more will be turned over to the collections agency.
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