In hopes of preserving full-lunch-for-all-students policy, Shawnee Mission will turn negative accounts over to collections twice a year

Shawnee Mission

In an effort to keep the full-lunch-for-all-students policy it approved this fall viable, the Shawnee Mission School District will begin turning over negative account balances to collection agencies two times per year.

Under current policy, the district’s food services office turns bad debt for unpaid lunches over to a collection agency at the end of every school year. Under the updated policy approved 6-0 by the board of education Monday (board member Mary Sinclair was absent), negative balances will be turned over to collections at the end of each semester.

The goal, say district officials, is to recoup some of the mounting negative balances sooner and add an incentive for parents not to let unpaid debt mount.

SM North area representative Sara Goodburn, who reviewed the changes to the policy as part of a committee, said she hoped the tweak would help the district sustain its new practice of letting all kids get a full lunch regardless of their lunch account balances. Prior to the adoption of the new policy in November, students who had negative account balances would get a toasted cheese sandwich and milk in lieu of a full hot lunch meal.

However, since the policy went into effect, the district has seen its liability for unpaid meals nearly triple.

“We would love to continue this. We love the fact that we’re getting students food every day. We just really hope that we see data come in at the end of the school year that shows us that those balances have really come down,” Goodburn said. “It may be that we have to revisit this if these balances continue to go up…”

Board member Deb Zila noted that the change would have the added benefit of giving each student’s account a clean slate at the start of each semester, meaning food services staff would not have to spend as much time calling parents throughout the year in hopes of getting them to bring the accounts current. Food services staff have reportedly spent more than 80 hours of staff time making calls to parents trying to get debts resolved since the policy went into effect.

The district will continue to try to persuade families who qualify for free-and-reduced lunch programs to enroll so that some of the cost of those students’ lunches would be off-set with federal funds. The district will also focus on getting families who don’t qualify for those assistance programs to keep their accounts current.