Unpaid lunch balances spike

The Cassville school district is determining how to handle a dramatic increase in unpaid food service bills, up 300 percent since April 2022 and 50 percent since the start of this school year.

Merlyn Johnson, Cassville superintendent, said balances have been on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic, during which federal funding provided free meals at the district. With that funding gone, Johnson said the district is trying to reacclimatize parents and guardians to the traditional process.

“Historically, we’ve been around $10,000 but now, we’re over $40,000 and trending to over $50,000 by the end of the year.”

As of March 5, unpaid balances totaled $42,785.19, and that figure is expected to balloon to $53,500 by the year’s end. Balances crossed the $20,000 threshold in June 2023, up from $10,722.79 in April 2022.

“Someone last year was generous enough to help us pay many debts,” Johnson said.

A majority of the debt — $28,359 worth — is held by 120 individuals. A total of 61 owe more than $100, 34 owe more than $200, eight owe more than $300, nine owe more than $400, five owe more than $500, two owe more than $600, and one owes $756.20.

Johnson said of those 120 students as many as three or four may be from the same family.

“These are not people in need — they are just not paying,” he said. “Nothing is free; and when you get something for free, someone else is paying. Some also need to just fill out the free and reduced paperwork.”

Cassville’s free and reduced rate is at about 60 percent, which Johnson said is lower than it should be compared to surrounding schools in the county.

A total of 420 families out of 1,091 in the district, representing 38.4%, have filled out a free and reduced application, though 466 individual students are “direct certified” and qualify automatically for free and reduced without filling out an application.

Of the 120 students with over $100 in debt, 53 percent have filled out applications. Cassville has 1,897 students total.

“With the discontinuation of free COVID meals, some parents of school age students have become complacent about promptly paying lunch bills, potentially due to a shift in financial priorities or assumptions about the return to pre-pandemic norms,” Johnson said.

Breakfast prices for students range from $1.60 to $1.90, and lunch prices range from $2.35 to $2.70. Reduced cost for those who qualify is 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.

Johnson said the issue of rising unpaid balances is not limited to Cassville. Many in arrears, he said, tell the district breakfast and lunch should remain free like during the pandemic.

“Other schools are seeing a similar trend, and they have been giving alternative meals if an account gets too high,” Johnson said.

Cassville abandoned alternative meals in 2016, concluding the practice was detrimental to students, leaving them hungry during the school day due to inaction on the part of parents or guardians.

Cassville is forming a plan of action to deal with the larger accounts, as administrators and office staff have reported letters and calls to families have been ignored.

Johnson said with the Board of Education’s approval, which was granted, the district intends to send letters from its attorney seeking payment.

The topic of unpaid balances was broached at Thursday’s board meeting following a positive report from food service staff. Cassville employs 20 food service staff and serves an average of 1,730 meals per day.

Three of the district’s four kitchens also received the Barry County Health Department’s Silver Spoon Award, an honor bestowed to only 17 establishments in the county based on random inspections and violations found. Cassville’s three kitchens that received the award had zero critical and zero non-critical violations.

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