CLAREMONT — Despite adopting best practices to collect unpaid bills for school meals, the Claremont School District’s cafeteria debt continues to accumulate, according to the district Finance Officer Richard Seaman.
Seaman told the school board on Wednesday that the district’s cafeteria services debt currently exceeds $32,000, dating back to last school year.
“At the end of last [fiscal] year we had a negative balance of $25,900,” Seaman said. “That has continued to grow this year and is up by another $6,000.”
After learning in October 2018 that the district had $32,000 in unpaid student meals bills, the district, school board and contracted meals provider The Abbey Group initiated a number of new policies and practices in an effort to curb the problem. According to Seaman, the schools and cafeteria team are diligently sending letters and calling families that have outstanding balances, including follow-ups when promises of payment don’t arrive and trying to remind and encourage eligible families to fill out and submit their applications for free-and-reduced lunch programs.
“We’ll say that there’s no reason for them to have this type of issue if they’ll just turn in the application,” Seaman said. “And very few of those are coming in.”
Under school district policy, any student will receive a lunch if the student needs one, according to the finance director. This policy ensures that no student goes hungry during the school day, but the school bills the family for that meal.
Seaman said that students without money cannot purchase a la carte items. The board instituted that policy last school year following public concerns that some of this debt included purchasing off-the-menu items like snacks and desserts.
“[Collecting on cafeteria debt] is a challenge countywide,” Seaman said. “We are doing a lot of those best practices. We are following up and getting in touch with the families, we are keeping it in front of them. But at the same time we have made the point that we will continue to feed the child.”
Seaman told the board that two groups have already inquired into donating collections to help pay down the debt. He anticipates more requests to donate may follow as the situation becomes more known.
But despite changes in cafeteria policies and initiatives to communicate with families, the rate of unpaid debt remains similar to that in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. Debt grows approximately $3,000 per month during the active months of school, according to Seaman.
Seaman also recommended that the board consider applying other Claremont schools for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which would make breakfasts and lunches free to all students in the school. Currently, only Bluff Elementary School participates in the program.
CEP is a nationwide program intended to improve access to free school meals in schools with a high percentage of students living in poverty.
Though a downside would be the loss in revenue, the district would no longer have to deal with the challenges to recover unpaid debt.
According to program information provided by the New Hampshire Department of Education, breakfasts and lunches are served free to all students in a school if 40% of the students are eligible for free-or-reduced lunches.
Seaman said that he believes other schools in the district may also be eligible. He would bring that research to the board at a future meeting for discussion. Seaman also told the board he would bring a breakdown of the debt owed by school.
In a bit of good news, Seaman said that the district met the deadline this year to apply for federal reimbursement for free-and-reduced meals and has submitted its forms containing eligible students for the months of September and October. The district missed the application deadline two years in a row in school years 2017-18 and 2018-19.
In 2017-18, the district lost revenue of $203,155. In 2018-19, the loss totaled $261,805.