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Clayton's student-meal debt down by $67,235

Unpaid student-meal debt in Clayton County Public Schools has declined since last November, when district officials expressed fears the mounting debt could top $200,000 by the end of this school year.

The district's School Nutrition Department has trimmed the debt by 73 percent, or $67,235.29, since it peaked at $91,773.32 in December 2009, said the district's school nutrition director, Audrey Hamilton, on Monday.

As of May 3, the date of the most recent outstanding-debt report, the debt amount was $24,538.03, she said.

The debt reduction, Hamilton said, came through a series of measures, including sending out charge letters, and making phone calls, to families of students with unpaid debt, implementing a new alternative meal plan, and moving school cafeteria cashiers to the front of the meal lines.

"Had we not done something to change how things were being done, it very likely could have surpassed $200,000," Hamilton said. "Since Dr. Heatley intervened, however, we've stopped all meal charges."

While there has been a large reduction in the amount of money owed to the School Nutrition Department for unpaid lunches, it does not mean the district will let up on the people who have not yet paid their outstanding debts, according to Hamilton. She said school officials will continue to contact the parents of these students in writing, and by telephone. "Some of that money, we may not get back because of how late it is in the school year," Hamilton said.

The debt was created, school system officials told members of the Clayton County Board of Education last November, because several students were getting full-priced meals, even though they did not have the money to pay for them, and did not qualify for the federal government's Free and Reduced Lunch program. They would incur a meal charge for every meal they got, but for which they did not pay.

Over time, those charges built up to large amounts of debt because people were not paying the district back.

In December, the district adopted cheaper, alternative meals for students who did not have the money for lunch, and did not qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. The alternative meals consist of a choice between a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, or a grilled-cheese sandwich, or a salad, along with fruit and milk, or juice.

The school system also took another step to make sure students were getting the correct meals — the cashiers were moved to the front of the meal line. That means the students must pay for their meals before they can get the food. Only a handful of schools did not make that change, Hamilton said, and that is because they worked off their outstanding meal debts.

As the district's School Nutrition Department continues to collect on the remaining meal debts, it is also gearing up for its participation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Seamless Summer Option meal program. Clayton County Schools will only offer this option from June 7, to July 2. Through the program, local school districts provide breakfasts and lunches to students during the summer months for free, as long as the students are between the ages of 4 and 18, Hamilton said. Anyone over the age of 18 has to pay $1.50 for breakfast, and $2.50 for lunch, she said.

Hamilton said the school system will not have to incur a debt for the new meals program. The USDA reimburses school districts for those meals, she said. The only school where people will be able to take advantage of the program is Callaway Elementary School, at 120 Oriole Drive, in Jonesboro. Breakfast will be served from 9 a.m., to 9:30 a.m., and lunch will be served from 11:45 a.m., to 12:15 p.m. Those will be separate meal times from the ones for students who are taking summer school classes at Callaway, Hamilton said.

"That way, students who are only there for the meals don't co-mingle with the students who are there for school," Hamilton said.

Participants will have to sign in at the school's front office, so the school system can keep a paper record of how many meals it serves, for reimbursement purposes, Hamilton said.