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Framingham

School lunch debt tops $40G

By Megan McKee
Globe Correspondent / February 13, 2011

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It’s been months since Framingham school officials sent constables to gather money from parents who were unwilling or unable to pay down large balances for their children’s school lunches. But the school system is still out more than $40,000, with the majority of debt racked up at the town’s elementary schools, according to school officials.

The situation has put officials in the position of acting as debt collectors for unpaid lunches most often eaten by the school system’s youngest students — kindergartners and first and second graders. On Wednesday, school officials had a meeting at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School to discuss how to tackle the issue.

“I struggle every day to recoup these funds — every day,’’ said Brendan Ryan, the school system’s food services director. He said the schools have made phone calls and sent home letters, and are willing to work with parents to develop payment plans or even settle for less than the debts owed.

Wilson Elementary’s principal will start reaching out to delinquent families to implore them to apply for the federal free lunch program, said the school system’s business manager, Edward Gotgart. He said he guesses most of the families qualify.

Other than that and what’s already been done, there are few options short of giving students modified meals like cheese sandwiches and water to stanch the loss of money, said Gotgart.

But Ryan questioned the feasibility of that tactic.

“I’d be hard-pressed to see anyone give a kindergartner a cheese sandwich when they want a hot meal,’’ said Ryan.

Framingham isn’t unique in its battle to recoup money from lunch debts. A New York Times article last week detailed how New York City’s school budget is straining under $42 million in unpaid lunch debt accrued since 2004. The system’s 1,600 schools are on track to lose $8 million on lunches this school year alone, said the article.

Ryan said given the size of Framingham’s $3 million school lunch program, $40,000 isn’t much money. In years past, the debts were probably written off. But in a new fiscal era when programs like elementary band have been eliminated and teachers are being laid off, every dollar counts, he said.

“These funds that normally would just fly under the radar have been pushed to the forefront,’’ said Ryan.

Next door in Natick, parents have occasionally fallen behind but they usually settle up, said business manager Bill Hurley.

“It’s never become a sizable amount that’s caused us any real problem,’’ he said.

Framingham last summer sent constables to knock on the doors of 24 families who owed the school system large amounts for unpaid lunches. At that time, a total of about $75,000 was owed.

The constables’ visits prompted only three families to respond, said Gotgart. He said he was surprised so few families reacted to a badge-toting official presenting a serious-sounding letter.

Far more effective than constables has been a new system at the middle and high schools that prevents children from getting lunches on the house for more than a couple of days, said Gotgart.

“At the elementary schools, it’s a little more dicey. We don’t want to put [children] in the middle,’’ said Gotgart.

So, if a student goes through the line and has no money, they’re still served lunch, he said.

Ryan said about two-thirds of the $40,000 lunch debt is the responsibility of elementary school children. And the bulk of the debt has been accrued by a small number of families. For example, there are 30 students responsible for $6,000 in debt, he said.

More than anything, he said, he wishes parents would just fill out the free-lunch form since they would probably qualify. In Framingham elementary schools, 41 percent of students already receive free or reduced lunches, he said.

But Ryan said he suspects many parents are scared of being discovered as illegal residents, even though the only requirement for children to apply is that they are registered students within the school system. The forms stay within the schools, he said.

“I’m not the IRS or the INS and I’m not here to play ‘gotcha,’’’ said Ryan.

He said his priority is feeding students and getting paid for the food, no matter where the money comes from.

“There is a group of parents you’ll never get through to, whether it’s apathy or they’re undocumented,’’ he said.

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com.