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Clayton students have $83,826 unpaid-meals tab

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Public Schools is once again looking at mounting debt from unpaid school breakfast- and-lunch fees eight months after the board of education revised its policy on free-food services to avoid such a situation.

Superintendent Edmond Heatley told the school board on Monday that students have already racked up $83,826.06 in unpaid-meal charges since the school year began in August. He added that, at the rate the bill is adding up, the district's School Nutrition department could be stuck with more than $200,000 in unpaid meals by May 2010.

Heatley said the district would have to come up with the money to re-imburse the department, since it is set up to be self-sufficient within the school system's annual budget. He said the problem is a delicate situation for the school system, trying to feed every student, but without incurring huge amounts of debt.

However, he did not rule out having to take a hard-line stance on the issue. The school system's alternative-meal plan is the same thing as the federal government's free-and-reduced-lunch plan.

"I'm not saying any student should go without a meal ... but there is no way we can make up $83,000," Heatley said. "We can cut out charging all together. It would mean some people [parents] would come up to the podium [at school board meetings] and fuss at us, but it also may say to some individuals that they need to fill out the free-and-reduced-lunch paperwork."

While he did float the idea of not allowing students to charge their meals, Heatley will recommend that the board adopt a new alternative-meal structure at its Dec. 7 business meeting. Alternative meals are designed for students who do not have money to buy a meal, and whose families are not participating in the federal government's free-and-reduced-lunch program.

The new structure will consist of three types of alternative meals:

* The first type would be a cheese sandwich, with an apple and, either milk or juice. This would cost the district $0.78 cents per meal, or $7,891 for 10 months of meals, at 1,000 meals per month, according to information provided to school board members on Monday.

* The second type of alternative meal would be a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, with an apple, and, either milk or juice. One meal of this type would cost the district $0.69, or $6,923 for 10 months of meals, at 1,000 meals per month.

* The third alternative would consist of a garden salad with dressing, an apple and, either milk or juice . This would cost the district $0.81 per meal, or $8,169 for 10 months of meals, at 1,000 meals per month.

The unpaid-meal charges come at a time when state funding is shrinking for public school systems in Georgia. School systems, like other agencies that receive, at least, partial funding from the state, had to implement unpaid furlough days for employees this fall to make up for the effects a struggling economy is having on the state's budget.

The federal government's free-and-reduced-lunch plan is an option available for families who cannot afford school lunches and breakfasts. Under the plan, children from economically disadvantaged families can qualify for free, or reduced-price lunches -- if their families fill out the necessary paperwork and apply for the program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture re-imburses school systems for those meals.

The problem does not lie solely with students from families who qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunches but are not applying for the program, however. "Some students are getting lunch money from their parents, and then they pocket the money, and get a free lunch by claiming they don't have any lunch money," Heatley said.

Unpaid meal charges has been a problem vexing the school for the last few years. During the 2006-2007 school year, students racked up $89,591.29 in unpaid charges, according to an executive summary provided to school board members on Monday. That same executive summary shows there were $94,608.50 in unpaid charges during the 2008-2009.

The final amount of unpaid charges for the 2008-2009 school year is down from the $112,000 that existed in early March, when the problem was first brought to the school board for a solution. At the time, the district engaged itself in several attempts to raise awareness of the issue, ranging from sending charge letters [bills] home to parents, to making local media aware of the problem.

On Monday, school board member Mary Baker suggested that the school district send out charge letters again to parents. "If I'm giving my son money for lunch, and he's then charging free lunches, I want to know about it," Baker said.

Heatley responded by saying, "Letters do go home. Some people not only send in some money, but I'm sure someone loses a little bit of hide over it."