Shawnee Mission families with unpaid lunch debt will face collection agency more often

Following a sharp increase in unpaid lunch debt, the Shawnee Mission school board has tweaked its meal policy to hold parents more accountable.

The district will now turn over lunch debts to collection agencies at the end of each semester, instead of just once at the end of the school year.

The change, approved unanimously on Monday, takes effect for the 2019-20 school year.

Last fall, the board voted to give every student a hot meal, even if their accounts are empty. Those students could accrue a tab for parents to pay later.

Previously, schools served students a cheese sandwich and milk on days they couldn’t pay.

At the time, board members hoped the policy would help the district identify families who qualify for free and reduced lunch but are not signed up, in addition to ensuring that no child lacked a complete meal because parents couldn’t afford lunch or hadn’t put funds in accounts.

But in the following months, unpaid lunch debts soared to as much as $18,000, with the district’s neediest families making up only a fraction of the families in debt. While the district can cover costs for needy families with donations, food service staff spent more than 80 hours this spring notifying “full-pay” families that they have unpaid balances.

“We do know there is a number of families who are full-pay lunch who will remain full-pay lunch,” Superintendent Mike Fulton said in February. “That’s the group we are saying we really need you to come forward and pick up your negative balance.”

The new policy also makes clear the various ways parents can fund lunch accounts — in person with check or cash, an online eFunds portal that has a transaction fee and calling the food service office with a credit card.

The district still intends to turn over this year’s debt to collections by the end of the school year, said board member Sara Goodburn, who represented the board on a policy committee that recommended the change. Parents with unpaid balances are still encouraged to pay them off, she said.

“We love the fact that we are giving students food every day,” Goodburn said. “We just really hope that we see data at the end of this school year that shows that those balances have really come down.”

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Katy Bergen covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.