Shawnee Mission saw unpaid student lunch debt rise significantly after policy change, donations helping pay debt down

The Shawnee Mission School District Food Services department sent $20,000 worth of student lunch debt to the district’s collections agency at the beginning of the spring 2020 semester, Food Services Director Nancy Coughenour told the board of education in recent weeks.

Last month, Coughenour made a presentation on her department’s finances following the board’s approval of a new policy that guaranteed every student a full meal regardless of their ability to pay.  Coughenour said the updated negative debt balance rolled over and accrued by students since June 2019 — which marked the end of the first full semester the district piloted the policy to provide all students with a meal. Below is a breakdown of the negative account balances districtwide since the policy went into effect:

  • Total negative balance in June 2019: $27,830.29
  • Total negative balance sent to collections in June 2019: $10,856.17
  • Total negative balance in December 2019: $65,947.98
  • Total negative balance sent to collections in December 2019: $20,594.92

Coughenor said the June 2019 negative balance not sent to collections ($16,974.12) rolled over to the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year. Parents are alerted of students’ account balances when it falls below $8 for full price students and $2 for students part of the reduced lunch programs, according to district documents.

“We do take personal phone calls once a month and really talk [families] through it,” Coughenor said. “We ask what we can do to help [their situation] — we really try to be as passionate and caring as we, at all possible, can be.”

Once a student’s account reaches a negative balance of $75 or more, the food services department contacts a parent via phone to inform them that if the negative balance is not paid, it will be turned over to collections. Those with a negative balance of $75 or more will receive a mailed letter requesting a payment.

An account is turned over to collections if payment is not received within 30 days after the mailed letter. After it’s turned over to collections, the food services department resets the account to $0.  As of Feb. 1, Coughenour said there were 235 students with negative account balances greater than $75.

Additionally, Coughenour said the department was able to clear out all negative account balances during the holiday season thanks to donations. Some families that were paying for lunch filled out an application for the free or reduced lunch program after the fact and switched over, and now there’s about $1,300 that’s owed by families with students in the free lunch program, she said.

State of donations, potential solutions

Coughenour said donations during the recent holiday season were phenomenal, with people randomly calling to offer $50 or $100. In mid-December, Merriam Councilmember Whitney Yadrich donated unused funds from her campaign to pay down school lunch debt at Merriam Park Elementary.

Coughenour said she handles all donations personally, and works with donors to determine where they would like their money to go, such as a specific school or grade level. If the donor doesn’t have any preferences, the donation will go into the general fund which the food services department uses to the best of its ability, Coughenour said.

Jamie Borgman, the Shawnee Mission Northwest representative on the board, asked what donations look like this year, and Coughenour said they’re higher than normal at about $15,000. Borgman asked if the department had explored any creative ways to address the school lunch debt issue previously, such as an opt-in program where student lunch purchases are rounded to the next dollar and put into a fund. Coughenour said she would have to ask the state if such a program might be allowed, as the food services department is federally regulated.

Additionally, Coughenour said donations tend to come in again as seniors graduate. If there’s no younger siblings, parents might donate their child’s remaining balance. Sara Goodburn, the Shawnee Mission North representative on the board, asked Coughenor if it is sustainable for the department to make those personal calls in terms of staff hours. Coughenor said they’re making it work.

“My ladies, they’re so compassionate and they want to feed kids — we just make it work,” Coughenour said.

Coughenour updates the district’s negative school lunch balance at the end of each semester. To make a donation to the district’s school lunch debt, email foodservice@smsd.org or call (913) 993-9710. Parents can apply for the free or reduced lunch program online, here.