Schools set to collect on overdue fees

If your child has a missing textbook or unpaid school fee, you might want to pay up.

Many Wichita schools recently sent letters to parents informing them that the district refers accounts with unpaid fees or fines to a collection agency.

It's not a new policy. Similar to public libraries, Wichita schools have used collection agencies to recoup materials and outstanding fees for several years.

The district contracts with Wichita-based Kansas Counselors Inc., but schools decide whether to use the service and submit accounts for collection, said district spokeswoman Susan Arensman.

Some principals say they try to work with families to pay down fines and would rather have textbooks and other items returned than refer accounts to collectors. But cash-strapped schools have to recoup their money.

"The hope is that somebody who may have ignored notices before will say, 'I need to take care of this because I don't want that to happen,' " said Ken Thiessen, principal at East High School.

"We want to be good stewards of the money that's given to us," he said. "We want textbooks returned and taken care of so we can check them out to somebody else."

Thiessen said families get at least three mailed warnings and plenty of time to settle accounts with the school before they are turned over to a collection agency. He said lost textbooks — some costing $60 to $90 — are the most common culprit, but debts can include missing band or athletic uniforms, unpaid lab fees and other items.

East High sent billing notices to some families last month listing unpaid fees or missing items and the total amount due.

First-semester obligations were due Jan. 21 and second-semester fines by June 24, the notice says. Another note in all capital letters reads: "Any outstanding balance will be sent to a collection agency for further action."

Arensman, the district spokeswoman, said the district doesn't track how many or which schools use a collection agency because "It is a site-based decision."

"My guess is schools with a larger amount of unpaid fees would use an agency," she said.

Thiessen said East High's unpaid balances vary year to year and even month to month, but they sometimes total "into the thousands."

With 2,000 students, "Even a small amount owed by a portion of students can add up to a lot of money," he said.

He said the school works with families to set up payment plans and doesn't refer accounts to a collection agency "as long as there's communication."

"If a parent is in a financial situation that makes it difficult for them to pay an obligation, as long as they communicate with us and talk to us, we'll never send it to collection," Thiessen said.

Sometimes, though, families ignore calls and letters until the harshly worded collection agency threat. "And then, all of a sudden, they find that book and turn it in," he said.

"Our ultimate purpose isn't to make money, it's to get back whatever item is missing or to recoup that cost so we can reorder that item."