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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Timberlane struggles to collect school lunch debt

From the Eagle Tribune;

Timberlane struggles to collect school lunch debt Timberlane has 'thousands of dollars' of lunch debt
By Margo Sullivan

PLAISTOW — More children are turning up in the school lunch line with empty pockets, as well as empty stomachs, said Kathleen Smith, assistant business manager for the Timberlane Regional School District.

High school Principal Donald Woodworth said about 15 families have run up debts of $200 or more, accounting for the high school's portion of the uncollected debt.

Smith did not immediately return a phone call asking for an estimate of the uncollected lunch money. Woodworth said yesterday the sum is in the "significant thousands of dollars."

Woodworth said the recession has cost jobs and some families, who used to rely on two incomes, have not trimmed their expenses to fit one salary.

"Some households used to be earning $170,000 and now one person's out of work," he said. "They're down to $65,000 or $70,000 a year, but they still have the expenses from their old lifestyle."

The parents still earn too much money to qualify for free and reduced lunch programs, Smith said.

Now the question is what the schools should do to collect the money, while at the same time, making sure needy students do not go hungry.

Elementary and middle-school students are still being fed, regardless of their debt, Smith said. But the district decided to take tougher measures with high-school students. Their parents are receiving collection letters if the students owe $20 or more.

But Jeremy Wilson, 18, a Timberlane senior, said school officials should treat the cafeteria debts on a case-by-case basis.

"I don't think it's right to just cut someone off," he said. "But if someone isn't paying because they don't want to, they should be sought-after."

Woodworth said that's how the high school's staff is trying to handle the situation.

The issue of uncollected lunch money came up after an audit, Smith said.

Woodworth said food services at all the district schools, including Atkinson, Danville, Plaistow and Sandown, are audited annually to make sure the companies are running efficiently.

"We want to make sure we're not making a mistake going with a food service company," he said.

The red ink started flowing last year from cafeterias in the Timberlane Regional School District, Woodworth said. This year, as the recession has deepened, the food service has continued to lose money, largely because the schools are having trouble with debt collection.

He sees a report every two weeks with the names of students in arrears. He and the staff contact the families and try to assess the situation.

Most parents do pay the bill when the school makes a demand, he said. If they don't have the money, the school offers a payment plan. Meanwhile, to help the youngsters, the staff tries to connect them with Mealey's Meals, a yearlong program designed to help feed the needy.

"We try to do that pretty quietly," he said.

Timberlane Regional Middle School's Principal Michael Hogan said his students are trying to put on some fundraisers to help needy families.

"I'm not sure how much fundraising we'll do," he said.

The students are planning a Hat Day at lunch as one effort to raise money.

Smith said similar problems with school lunch collections are occurring nationwide.

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