OLD TOWN, Maine — After reading about the boy who was denied a school lunch at J.A. Leonard Middle School this week because his parent owed money on the account, two Mainers outside the school district decided to take action.
Patty Hildreth of Standish said she wanted to know how much money was owed to RSU 34 schools for delinquent lunch accounts.
“How much is it going to take to get through the end of the year?” Hildreth asked a Bangor Daily News reporter. She said she called the district office on Thursday but couldn’t get through to anybody. She wanted to offer to pay off the bills herself.
“Tell me how much it is so I can pay it,” she said. “They should be feeding these kids.”
A Hampden man named Dave, who refused to give his last name, said Thursday he went to Sam’s Club in Bangor, where he bought 10 loaves of bread and two big jars each of peanut butter and strawberry jam he later delivered to the school in Old Town.
“Kids who are denied lunch can at least have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” he said on Thursday.
The reaction, which included more than 600 comments about the story on the BDN website, stemmed from Monday’s incident in which an 11-year-old student at the middle school sat at the lunch table without any food while his friends ate their lunches, according to his mother, Elizabeth Ireland.
Ireland said she owed $53 on her son’s lunch account, which since has been paid.
RSU 34 Superintendent David A. Walker said on Tuesday that starting this week and continuing through the last day of school on June 11, students who owe money on their school lunch accounts won’t be fed.
“We don’t want a child to go without lunch, but at the same token, the taxpayers expect us to collect what’s due to us,” Walker said on Tuesday. However, snacks are available in the guidance office, he added.
He did not return phone messages seeking comment on Thursday. It’s unknown if any other students were denied a lunch this week or how many are delinquent on payments.
The Old Town area district is not alone in dealing with delinquent lunch payments, according to education officials.
Maine Department of Education spokeswoman Samantha Warren wrote in an email, “this is a local issue and Maine is a local control state, meaning schools are empowered to make local decisions based on what is most appropriate for their students, and their community,” but noted the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that all students in kindergarten through grade three be served food regardless of ability to pay.
“However, for grades 4-12, there is no state or federal requirement, and instead, districts are encouraged to establish a school-board approved policy so there are clear expectations of what the school and their students’ families are responsible for bringing to the table,” she wrote.
Brewer School Department Superintendent Daniel Lee said Thursday his department will offer a basic sandwich if the account is well into the red.
“We don’t really shut you off, but we will harass you. We’ll send you a letter,” said Lee.
Unlike RSU 34, the parents of Brewer school students are able to pay online.
“You can check your account and balance as well,” Lee said.
At the Brewer Community School, which houses about 1,000 students in grades K-8, there is $5,266 in uncollected lunch fees, he said.
The high school is a different story. Of the 730 kids at Brewer High School, there’s only $79.50 in unpaid lunch fees.
“You’re never going to turn a little kid away. You’re not going to turn a 5-year-old away from lunch,” said Lee. “But, if you’re in high school, I’ll harass you about it.”
On Friday, Lee corrected his earlier statements, noting in an email that he had been reminded that a Brewer High School student was denied lunch recently because an electronic payment did not appear in the system.
“I was reminded by a co-worker that a student at Brewer High School was denied a lunch last week after their parent used our electronic system as it takes 24 hours for credits to be posted. Hence, I was wrong, students have been denied lunch at our high school for accounts in arrears,” Lee wrote.
SAD 22 Assistant Superintendent Emil Genest said the Hampden-area schools use a debit system.
“Parents give kids a debit card, which has helped a lot” in reducing delinquent accounts, he said. “You can’t charge for the last week of school. You have to pay by cash.”
Up to five meals can be charged without paying, according to the district’s policy. After that, a meal can be denied.
“Customarily, what we would do is talk to the parent,” said Genest. “Our guideline is to let the child eat a regular meal.”
At RSU 64 in Corinth, the district tries to stay on top of delinquent accounts as best they can, said Superintendent Daniel Higgins.
“Our procedure is we try to track down parents with overdue accounts and try to keep them as current as possible,” said Higgins, adding that they use phone calls and letters to inform parents. “A typical procedure would not be for us to withhold lunch. We would like to make food available to the student.”
Brewer’s Lee said overdue accounts aren’t a widespread issue in his district.
“It seems like it’s a problem for a few people, not a lot of people,” he said. “But the few people owe a lot.”
Typically, if overdue accounts are more than $100, the district will seek other ways to recoup the money.
“My advice is to turn it over to a collection agency,” Lee said.
Walker said the policy of not serving kids who have delinquent bills during the last week of school has been in place for the eight years he has been the superintendent of RSU 34. However, it was not an official policy approved by the school board.
“This board has not had a meal charging policy, which I’m guessing from the discussion [Tuesday] is something they’ll need to have,” Walker said previously. “If the board decides they don’t want to do business this way, then that’s what we’ll do.”
He said his policy has been effective because he ends up collecting the money owed to the school. Written notices are mailed periodically to parents and phone calls are made informing them of balances owed. After students are out of school, he said, he loses that contact with the student and parents and collecting the money gets much more difficult.
The policy is only enforced at the middle and high school levels, he said.
Walker previously said there are about 1,500 students in the school system.
“You could have 50-75 accounts that are delinquent that are anywhere between $5 and $250,” said Walker. “If I have $2,500 worth of unpaid lunches, then I take $2,500 from [the] general fund to pay for it. That’s $2,500 that is not used for textbooks or other things. Resources are fairly scarce.”
Dave of Hampden said the food he bought cost $36.36. He was greeted nicely at the Old Town middle school on Thursday, he said. The donation was accepted, he said, but he was told that it was unnecessary.