South Western district turns to collection agency for lunch debt

FILE – In this May 4, 2017, file photo, second-graders Angelina Lopez, left, and Nasim Hamdouni, right, enter a student account code to track lunch purchases at Gonzales Community School in Santa Fe, N.M. In April 2017, New Mexico became the first state to outlaw "lunch shaming" of children for unpaid meals, and a Pennsylvania measure that became law in November 2017 requires communication about money owed on meal accounts to be done between school officials and parents, and not involve the student. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee, File)

South Western School District's board has approved using a collection agency to collect unpaid lunch debt, as its total arrears continues to rise following the state revised public school code to prevent lunch shaming.

Under revisions in 2017 and 2018, schools can no longer refuse meals to students if they can't pay. Nor can districts publicly identify or stigmatize them or force them to do chores or other work in lieu of payment.

"That was the watershed moment," said district business manager Jeffrey Mummert, noting that after the law was changed, debt totals saw a huge jump from $4,004 in the 2016-17 school year to $11,509 in 2017-18.

Debt had reached $23,035 by the end of the 2018-19 school year, he said.

More:Meal debt grows in York County schools following lunch shaming regulations

Before 2017-18, total arrears had stayed relatively low — $4,664 in the 2014-15 school year, $5,791 in 2015-16 and $4,004 in 2016-17.

The district board approved a contract Oct. 9 with J.P. Harris Associates to collect outstanding technology and cafeteria bills. The resolution to hire the firm was approved with eight votes in support.  

Board member James Harris abstained because of a personal relationship with the company, district officials said. A Jim Harris is listed as one of the company's owners on its website. An attempt to reach Harris on Friday was unsuccessful.

Mummert said on Wednesday, Oct. 23 that the contract would be signed by the board that week, at which point the district can begin collecting $5,000 in outstanding payments from graduates or those who have moved out of the district.

Students have the option to pay up until graduation, Mummert said. Once they are no longer in schools, it's harder to find them, so that's where the collection agency comes in. 

J.P. Harris Associates, based in Mechanicsburg, does not make any reports, so graduates' records or credit ratings would not be affected. The agency would simply send out notices until the money is collected, according to a representative at the firm who answered on Friday but declined to provide her name.

More:‘Lunch shaming’ faces scrutiny across the country

A number of school districts across the state have reported problems with an exponential growth in debt since the law was put in place.

In York County, South Eastern School District authorized use of a collection agency should debt get too high, though assistant business manager Laurel Fuhrman said it has not come to that yet.

West Shore School District has already started using one, as its debt had grown to about $17,000 by Aug. 21.

"We’ve had some success with it," said Rhonda Fourhman, the district's coordinator of community relations, though it has only helped return a couple thousand dollars so far.

That amount also came partially from donors, Fourhman said, adding that the district's main goal is to just help families in need get connected to resources. But the lunch debt total "has not gone up drastically since then." 

Elsewhere in the state, Wyoming Valley West School District, in Luzerne County, made national news when it threatened parents — four of whom owed at least $450 each — with sending their children to foster care after overdue bills reached $22,000.

Mummert said his district also will be collecting debt from unpaid computer repairs, which had reached about $24,254 as of Aug. 20.

"Almost every student has a laptop," he said, meaning there's usually a lot of breaks and repairs.  

"I think the General Assembly is recognizing this is a problem, and I think they’re trying to take actions to modify it," Mummert said.

Editor's note: A previous version of the story noted the contract would be signed on Thursday, but it was signed Wednesday, Oct. 23.