Meal debt racks up for students

Published 10:20 pm Friday, May 4, 2018

More than $55,000 in debt has been sent for collections so far this school year.

That’s not anybody’s credit card debt or student loans: it’s unpaid charges for student meals in Suffolk Public Schools, accumulated less than $2 at a time.

A full-price school lunch costs high school and middle school students $1.95, and it costs an elementary student $1.85. Reduced-price lunch costs the same across all grade levels at 40 cents.

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The lunch price for Suffolk Public Schools has been on a steady increase for several years. During the 2013-2014 school year, lunch was $1.55 at elementary schools and $1.70 at secondary schools. However, Suffolk still has the third-lowest lunch prices in the region, with Virginia Beach being the highest at $2.85 and Portsmouth being the lowest at $1.65.

Parents start to receive weekly automated phone calls after a student accumulates a negative balance of $1.50 or more, spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw said in an email.

Once the negative account balance exceeds $15, the school district sends collection letters to parents or guardians. If the balance is not paid within 10 business days, the negative balance gets passed on to the city for collection, according to Bradshaw.

The city can charge a collection fee if it chooses.

“Once turned over to the city, the negative debt is removed from the student’s account,” Bradshaw stated in an email.

The school division began sending meal debt to the city treasurer during the 2013-14 school year, and since doing so has sent $333,497 in school meal debt, according to figures provided by Bradshaw. This figure also includes charges from breakfast.

The city treasurer has collected more than half of that, but there is still $119,663 in outstanding debt.

The treasurer’s office treats every collection for the school meal debt differently, and they attempt to handle the matter as peacefully as possible.

“We do not wish to create a financial hardship for anyone,” said Compliance Manager Andrew Tasch. “Even after any collection action is taken, we are still open for negotiations to resolve this debt owed by way of payroll deduction or possibly a partial payment plan request.”

The office implements multiple avenues to gather the debt, but if those aren’t successful, they can put a lien on wages or send the amount owed to the Department of Taxation, according to Tasch.

When debt is sent to the Department of Taxation, it can seize state income tax refunds from parents. According to the Code of Virginia, the treasurer has five years to attempt to collect the debt.

“To date, the Suffolk Public Schools have advised they are very pleased with the results of this arrangement and will continue to ask for treasurer’s assistance in the collection of any delinquent accounts owed to them,” Tasch said.

The debt rarely gets written off unless it passes the state’s statute of limitations.

Suffolk Public Schools has already sent $55,017 to the city treasurer this school year.

Even if a student has debt on his or her account, the student can still get a regular lunch, Bradshaw said — there’s no “cheese sandwich of shame” as offered by other districts. But their account reflects a negative balance, and they won’t be allowed to charge beverages or snacks.

“Every student may select a meal from the menu. Suffolk Public Schools does not offer alternate meals to students who cannot afford to pay,” said Bradshaw in an email.

Only a parent or guardian can stop a student from charging meals, and they have to make a request to the school.

As long as the negative balance doesn’t exceed $15, a student can carry a negative balance into the next year. However, the parent or guardian will continue to receive a weekly automated phone call.

To avoid negative charges, some students may qualify for free meals. All students in households receiving SNAP or TANF are eligible to receive free meals, and families that are eligible for Medicaid may qualify for free or reduced-price meals.