No free lunch: Debts, bad policy eat at Kingman school program
KINGMAN - The Kingman Unified School District is in a bit of a quandary when it comes to collecting money for food already served.
When students not signed up for free or reduced lunch - despite possibly qualifying - come to school without money to pay for a meal, the district allows them to charge the lunch. The district then attempts to collect the money owed from the students' parents, but it doesn't always go as planned.
"We have some families who owe more than $100 for over two years," said Paula Loomis, KUSD food services director.
And to make matters more complicated, the school board passed a package of policy changes without taking an extensive look at each one in October, and one of the policies on collecting food charges is not supported by the board.
The cumulative debt continues to grow and has spiked in the last couple of years. In 2008, the total owed to the district for food charges was $663. That number dropped to $621 in 2009, jumped up to $844 in 2010 and increased to $1,463 in 2011. Currently, that total exceeds $3,100.
At this rate, it wouldn't be a stretch to see that number reach close to $10,000 in 2013.
A significant percentage of the families with large outstanding debts qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, Loomis said.
There are 7,191 students enrolled in KUSD schools. Of those, 4,399 are signed up for free lunch and 477 are signed up for reduced lunch.
Families must apply for their children to receive free or reduced lunch every year their children are enrolled at a district school, Loomis explained.
During the first 30 days of a school year, students retain the meal status they had the previous year. Once those 30 days are up, students who were part of the program during the previous year must start paying for their lunches if their application hasn't been turned in.
Often, the students must charge their meal to eat.
Policy needs changing
The policy change passed in October says that once a student reaches three charges in a year, his or her parents are notified and the student begins receiving alternate meals on days he or she doesn't have money to pay.
The alternate meal consists of a cheese sandwich, milk and either a fruit or vegetable. Exempt from this policy are pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and disabled students.
Board members Charles Lucero and Jeri Brock made it clear that they do not want to enforce that policy and want to work to change it.
Serving students alternate meals singles them out for ridicule, the two argued.
"There's got to be a better way," Lucero said.
Brock plans to rewrite the policy to better suit the board's wishes and present it at next month's meeting.
Food and finances
The number of students signed up for the free and reduced lunch program has a direct effect on the federal funding the district receives.
Take what is known as the E-Rate, for instance. It's a federal program that uses money collected through the Universal Service Fund to help schools pay for technology. This does not include hardware, KUSD Finance Director Wanda Hubbard said.
The E-Rate funding reimburses school districts for a percentage of technology costs, such as those incurred for telephone lines and Internet connections. The percentage paid is directly connected to the amount of students receiving free or reduced lunch, Hubbard said.
KUSD receives between $300,000 and $500,000 every year through E-Rate funding.
"I want to be closer to the 500 than the 300," Hubbard said. The only way to be sure to get the maximum reimbursement is to have those who qualify signed up for the free or reduced lunch program.
Technology costs that are not reimbursed must be covered with the district's Maintenance and Operations Fund, she said.
The district also receives about $2 million for Title I, the federal program designed to help at-risk students. This amount is based on the Kingman area's poverty rate relative to the rest of the country, but the amount allocated to each school for intervention programs, such as tutoring, is based on how many students are signed up for free or reduced lunch at a school, Hubbard said.
Most KUSD schools qualify for Title I, KUSD Superintendent Roger Jacks said.
To qualify for the program, a family of two must gross $2,333 or less a month. That amount goes up with family size, capping out at $5,996 a month for a family of eight.
The district is set to hire a part-time employee to collect outstanding debts and assist families that need it to fill out free and reduced lunch applications, Hubbard said.
Whether the problem is parents not paying or parents not filling out important paperwork remains to be seen.
"But we need to make sure we have anyone who qualifies understanding how important it is," Hubbard said. "The grownups need to be dealing with the problem - not the kids."
Note: If you need a free or reduced lunch application or help filling out the one you already have, call the KUSD food services department at 753-6190.