As Dover deals with growing lunch debt, district faces backlash

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)

Dover Area School District officials said Tuesday that they had a fiduciary responsibility to hire a collection agency to pursue families of students with lunch debt. And, they said, public pushback against the move is rooted in widespread misconceptions of the issue.

Dover Area was among several York County districts last year that hired a collection agency as the amount of cash owed for school lunches grew. Local school officials have blamed the state Legislature's "lunch shaming" legislation for the growth in the number of students in arrears. 

Superintendent Tracy Krum addressed the criticism alleging that the district was going after students unnecessarily, especially those on free and reduced lunch.

"The comments that were made to raise this question to begin with a few months ago is the perception that we as a district are heartless, going after parents who can't afford to pay for lunch," said board Treasurer Steve Cook at a Tuesday, Jan. 8, meeting.

As the district has 50% low income enrollment, people believe the district is targeting recipients of free and reduced lunch, but district officials said that's not the case.

Tracy Krum, Superintendent of Schools at Dover Area School District.

District business manager Jennifer Benko said although some of the debt comes from students on free and reduced lunch, much of it also comes from those who don't qualify — and the families of those students just don't want to pay.

"Typically we send it out (to the collection agency) when we tried and we've gotten every indication that the parent is just not willing to pay," Krum said.

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The school board contracted with Mechanicsburg-based collection agency J.P. Harris Associates on Aug. 13.

Counselors, principals and social workers are keeping a close eye on family situations, she said, and it's not those who are struggling because of extenuating circumstances that the district is targeting.  

"A lot of these phone calls we have parents who will say, 'Don't feed my child,'" Krum said.

Benko said Tuesday that hundreds of individual students have lunch debt, ranging from $2.40 to $400, and some families could owe up to $1,500. Krum said the total owed to the district is now about $35,000.

"This is taxpayer money, and it's thousands and thousands of dollars," Krum said. "That's half a teacher."

Dover joins many school districts statewide and nationally that are seeing repercussions from laws that prevent lunch shaming. 

Under revisions to the Pennsylvania public school code passed in 2017 and 2018, schools can no longer refuse meals to students if they can't pay, publicly identify or stigmatize them or force them to do chores or other work in lieu of payment.

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

School officials in York County have consistently said their numbers of unpaid lunch debt increased at a much higher rate after the state law changed. At the end of August, several districts reported ballooning debt, ranging from $5,000 to $22,000.

FILE - In this Jan. 25, 2017, file photo, students fill their lunch trays at J.F.K Elementary School in Kingston, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mary Esch, File)

South Western similarly faced backlash from the community when it hired a collection agency in October to recover unpaid debts.

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

More:South Western lunch debt collection elicits outcry

A petition against that district reached more than 500 signatures when residents misunderstood the move to mean the district would be coming after graduates themselves, not their families.

South Western's debt total had reached $23,035 by the end of the 2018-19 school year.

If reasons for the debt are justifiable, Benko said, Dover uses donations to cover it when possible, and in fact received $650 in donations on Tuesday.

More:'Feel-good' donation wipes out Red Lion students' lunch debt

Benko said families throughout the year will donate and decide, for example, 'I would like it to go to third grade at Dover Elementary ... and take the highest balances.'"

And the district has a lengthy process, including multiple phone calls throughout the summer and on-site assistance at the beginning of the school year, to get students on free and reduced lunch, as well as ensure all students receive the help they need when balances are low. 

When lunch account balances reach $8 or less, families get a phone call and email, and again when it goes into the negative, then weekly calls after that. When the debt reaches $50, the accounting clerk will also offer assistance with payment plans. Counselors reach out again when it gets to $100. 

District officials decide at the end of each quarter who would be a candidate for the collection agency, and this was done for the first time at the end of December, Krum said.

"There's still a lot of time invested in that, and that's also taxpayer money that is going towards that," Cook said. "By the time it gets to a collection agency, it's actually saving them something down the road."