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FRAMINGHAM, WELLESLEY

Towns go after lunch money

Districts are fed up with unpaid tabs

By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / September 15, 2011

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Later this year, constables may be knocking on the doors of families in Wellesley who are the biggest school-lunch-fee scofflaws in town.

The school district is hoping to recoup about $80,000 in unpaid lunch fees from previous years, and the School Committee has approved hiring constables to deliver letters to families who owe at least $100, giving notice that they have 30 days to pay or work out payment plans - or find themselves in small claims court.

Wellesley’s district has also adopted a strict policy this year to avoid bigger debts in the future: no money, no lunch.

Framingham school officials, who say they are owed $40,000 in late lunch fees, are also struggling to collect. Last year, like Wellesley, they sent out a constable to the homes of families who owed money, but were disappointed with the results.

Only eight of 25 families paid up, bringing just enough money to cover the constable’s bill, said Ed Gotgart, business manager for Framingham’s school system.

As unpaid school lunch bills mount, at a time when unemployment remains high and many families struggle to pay their bills, schools are taking on an uncomfortable job: debt collector. Even more precariously, some are creating policies to stop feeding students who can’t pay for lunch.

These changes worry lawyers at MetroWest Legal Services, which assists low-income residents. Last school year, after hearing about the constable being sent to the homes of Framingham families, representatives met with school officials.

“That really caught our eye because honestly, at first glance, it seemed like something the school should not be doing,’’ said Laura Edwards, a supervising attorney at MetroWest Legal Services.

The burden is on the district to enroll qualified students, from households that receive food stamps or cash assistance, in a federally subsidized program to get free meals at school, Edwards said.

Lawyers in her office have heard from clients who had trouble applying for free lunch for their children; Massachusetts directly certified only 51 percent of the children eligible during the 2009-2010 school year, according to a federal report, Edwards said.

In some cases, she said, there was a long delay between the time they applied and when the benefits began. In other cases, applications were denied for reasons the lawyers found questionable.

“This is one of the reasons - and we believe a very large reason - these debts rack up,’’ she said. “We are really concerned about the impact this has on working families.’’

Moreover, she said, children should not be denied lunch because of errors that prevented their qualification for the subsidy program.

Framingham official Gotgart agrees. “Hungry kids in classrooms are not receptive to learning,’’ he said. “It’s not to anyone’s advantage to deny access to nutritional meals.’’

In Wellesley, a school lunch costs from $3.10 to $3.35, depending on the student’s grade; in Framingham, the cost is $2.50 to $2.75. Students buy lunch by entering identification numbers to deduct money from their accounts, Wellesley officials said.

Wellesley officials did not have specific information about how many families owe for lunches, or how much they owe on average.

Last year, after the constable visits didn’t motivate more families to pay, Framingham district officials said high school and middle school students could not buy lunch if they couldn’t pay upfront. School officials focused on students old enough to understand the policy, Gotgart said. And the district announced that students who hadn’t paid off old lunch debts couldn’t graduate. Everyone paid up, Gotgart said, and no one was prohibited from graduating for that reason.

But that still left the $40,000 in unpaid fees faced by the system.

“We think we’ve bottomed out,’’ Gotgart said. “Now the question is, can we peck away at’’ the leftover deficit.

Wellesley schools launched a new system for collecting lunch fees this week, allowing families to electronically add money to their children’s accounts using a credit card. Last year, families complained about errors in the previous computer system.

In June, the town’s School Committee voted on a new, stricter food service policy that provides five days of an alternative lunch - not the regularly served lunch of the day - after students reach a zero balance in their account. After those five days, according to the policy, students will no longer get lunch from the school.

“The new policy is if students don’t have a positive balance in their food service account, then they wouldn’t be offered lunch,’’ said Superintendent Bella Wong.

But Wong said school officials will also monitor students, looking for those who come to school with neither lunch money nor lunch from home. In those cases, she said, school officials would work with the families.

Edwards, at MetroWest Legal Services, said schools should pay attention to all students who have been unable to pay their lunch bills.

“If a family is behind on paying, I think it should be a red flag for the school because they need to take a closer look at the family and see what is going on,’’ she said.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.