Helfrich's conflict of interest waiver conspicuously absent from agenda

South Western lunch debt collection elicits outcry

FILE – In this Dec. 2, 2010, file photo, a child pays for a lunch consisting of fruits and vegetables during a school lunch program at Fairmeadow Elementary School in Palo Alto, Calif. California and Pennsylvania both passed laws in 2017 to outlaw "lunch shaming" of children for unpaid meals, with the Pennsylvania measure that became law in November requiring communication about money owed on meal accounts to be done between school officials and parents, and not involve the student. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

More than 500 people have signed a petition criticizing a no-bid contract awarded by South Western School District to a debt collection agency that's owned by a school board member's father. 

The Change.org petition, created under the name "Hanover Area Community," listed concerns over a perceived conflict of interest involving school board member James Harris and complaints about a private firm profiting off "poor students" who couldn't pay.

Harris' father, Jim Harris, owns the Mechanicsburg-based collection agency J.P. Harris Associates. Harris abstained earlier this month when the school board approved hiring the debt collection agency, citing his relationship with the company. 

The petition had reached 573 signatures as of about 4 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 29, surpassing its original goal of 500 signatures. Its creators updated that goal to 1,000 on Tuesday.

The petition incorrectly named board member James Harris as the firm's owner instead of his father.  

"Jim wants to buy the entire district's student lunch debt for pennies on the dollar, then assign that debt to the very students he swore to serve — who just needed something to eat," the petition reads.

South Western business manager Jeffrey Mummert said Tuesday that although the board cannot legally use a company owned by a board member, there was no issue with using a parent's company.

"We’ve run it past our solicitor, and he had no concerns," Mummert said.

South Western High School in Penn Township, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The district's contract with J.P. Harris Associates was approved Oct. 9 and signed by the board Wednesday, Oct. 23. Because it was a contract for service, there was no requirement to put it out for bid, Mummert said.

The decision to use the agency was not a recommendation from board member James Harris, and he could not be involved in that process, Mummert said. Messages left for  him were not returned before deadline.

South Western's reasoning behind using the collection agency was the district's burgeoning lunch debt — which had reached $23,035 by the end of 2018-19. Though the district has always had lunch debt, it's never been at these levels, Mummert said.

More:South Western district turns to collection agency for lunch debt

Part of the reason for the spike is increased restrictions on the district after the public school code was updated in 2017 and 2018 to prevent "lunch shaming," said school board President Vanessa Berger.

Under the revised state law, students cannot be refused any meals because of pay — even the district's a la carte items, Berger said.

(L to R): Solicitor Gareth Pahowka, board President Vanessa Berger and Superintendent Dr. Jay Burkhart discuss armed security guards at the South Western School Board meeting Wednesday, June 27, 2018.

"Our debt quadrupled once students were able to take as many lunches and (a la carte) items as they would like rather than just the standard lunch," she said.

Mummert added that South Western used to be able to give alternate lunches for students who couldn't pay or a grace amount of $5 for students whose parents forgot to refill their lunch accounts.

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

"Most of the time those debts are accumulated because kids don’t realize it," said board member Ann Rinker, who added that the debt is so large that an outside agency seemed like "our only option."

But the petition writer also had a fundamental problem with the idea of using an agency to recover lunch debt.

"Imagine the child who has to go hungry every day and make excuses to avoid the lunchroom because they don't want to get another threatening collection notice from their school board member's for-profit company," the petition states.

Mummert clarified that the district is going after not the students themselves but rather the families of the students who have outstanding debt. Notices would not be sent to students unless they incurred the debt after they were 18, he said.

An attempt to reach the owner of J.P. Harris Associates for clarification on the agency's policies was unsuccessful Tuesday.

The collection service doesn't cost the district anything, and the district makes no profit, Mummert said, noting that the agency charges a small fee to families that owe the debt.

"If we’re owed $5, we’re getting $5," Mummert said.