Lunch debt to carry penalty at SMASD

Monday's meeting of the St. Marys Area School District Board of Supervisors included further discussion of a measure designed to aid the district in collecting on outstanding cafeteria debts, which totaled $5,000 last year alone, by prohibiting students with delinquent lunch accounts from attending field trips. While board members initially failed to reach a consensus on what amount of lunch debt would warrant revoking field trip privileges, it was decided at Monday's meeting that the amount would be tentatively set at $15. Superintendent Ann Kearney said that while Food Services Director Jen Asti had been successful in collecting $1,800 of last year's $5,000 total, Kearney said the collection process, which involves the sending of emails, letters, and notices to the parents of students with delinquent cafeteria accounts, represents "a great deal of time and expense." In addition, Kearney said the problem of student lunch debt is exacerbated by cuts in federal reimbursements for lunch programs and more stringent nutritional guidelines which have increased food costs. "We're getting less reimbursements and it puts a strain on the food services department," Kearney said. Kearney said as it currently stands, high school students owing at least five dollars in lunch debt are notified, and if no payment is received within one week then the student is provided a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a cup of water. "It ends up being about three weeks, but it doesn't take long for that debt to escalate," Kearney said. Currently the district utilizes a computerized system in which each student is given an identification number corresponding to their account and parents are able to put money into their child's account each month using a credit card or check. SMASD Board President Bob Luchini proposed that restricted access to participation in extracurricular activities be considered in addition to field trips for those students not inclined to attend a field trip or for those whom the field trip proves an insufficient incentive to pay off outstanding cafeteria balances on their cafeteria accounts. Kearney said that several school districts in Pennsylvania have included in their student handbooks guidelines stating that students cannot attend field trips as a result of their failing a subject, having unexcused absences, or owing debt of any kind. Following that lead, SMASD will include the $15 lunch debt penalty as an addendum to the student handbook and notices will be mailed to parents informing them of the development. "So if we could get that message out to parents at the beginning of the school year, tell the parents this is going to be a policy this year and that students have to keep up with your debt," Kearney said. Also at Monday's meeting, Kearney addressed an anonymous letter received by the board expressing concern for the early start of the school year. While the letter stated that the author could not find any other districts which started as early, Kearney clarified that in fact both Johnsonburg Area and Ridgway Area school districts begin their school year at the same as SMASD.