By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

More than 1,500 students in the Montclair Public Schools had unpaid school lunch balances at the end of the 2016-17 school year totaling more than $100,000, according to data collected by the district and obtained by an Open Public Records Act request.

District administrators are trying to determine why negative balances are increasing - whether due to families who are unable to pay, or otherwise - as well as how to collect the outstanding money from families in a sensitive manner.

Board President Laura Hertzog said that the district does not yet have any theories on why the balances increased, noting that there are a number of factors that could have contributed to the rise.

According to the data released by the district, there were 1,568 outstanding balances district-wide as of June 30 of this year, owing a combined $107,229.53.

Montclair High School had the highest number of students with a negative balance, with 406 students owing more than $21,000, an average of $52 per pupil.

Glenfield Middle School had the second-most unpaid balances, with 179 students owing $19,439.92, an average of more than $108 per pupil.

Interim Business Administrator Steve DiGeronimo said on Monday that the number of outstanding balances varies over the course of the year, and that sometimes, it could be multiple children from the same family. Generally, he said, the number of outstanding balances tends to fall between 1,200 and 1,500.

The subject of school lunch debt has made national headlines in recent months, especially regarding incidents known as “lunch shaming.”

Lunch shaming can take on different forms, from a cafeteria worker taking a child’s lunch and throwing it into the trash, making the child do chores in the cafeteria to pay for their lunch, or putting a stamp on the child’s hand saying “No money” or something similar.

The New Mexico state legislature recently began pursuing legislature that would outlaw lunch shaming in schools. In Seattle, one parent started a fund to help families in need pay off their outstanding lunch balances.

Hertzog emphasized that under no circumstances would a child be denied lunch simply because their account was empty.

But one question that the board is still trying to answer, Hertzog said, is the socio-economic status of the families whose balances are going unpaid.

“And because we don’t know what the breakdown is, we were reluctant to be more aggressive” in pursuing payment, she said.

Hertzog said that one question she had raised during the July 10 meeting was whether families were paying for a full-priced lunch despite being eligible for free-reduced price, and then going into debt for a full-priced lunch.

James Harris, the vice president of the Montclair NAACP specializing in education issues, said on Friday that there are a lot of families in Montclair who are eligible for the free-reduced lunch program, but have not signed up.

One reason, Harris said, is that they don’t want their names associated with anything that is related to poverty or low income.

Another reason, he said, is that there are a number of families in Montclair with undocumented status, and they may be hesitant to sign the paperwork related to the program.

Harris said that the NAACP has been making efforts to encourage families to sign up for free or reduced lunch if they are eligible, and that the organization tries to assure parents that all of their information will remain confidential.

According to the district’s existing policy, when a student’s meal bill falls into arrears, the school principal will contact the student’s parents and give notice. Parents will then have 10 days to pay the bill. If they do not, the principal will send them a second notice. Under federal and state law, all school districts are required to have a policy pertaining to school meal debts.

“Basically, we are putting the specific dollar amount, which is $50, which triggers the outreach,” Hertzog said.

“If payment in full is not made within one week from the date of the second notice, the student will be provided a basic lunch that will contain the essentials in balanced nutritional selections as prescribed by the Bureau of Child Nutrition Programs, New Jersey Department of Agriculture beginning the eighth calendar day from the date of the second notice,” the policy says.

The parents will also be requested to meet with the principal at that time.

DiGeronimo said that the district is looking at having the school principals or their secretaries, rather than the central office, do the outreach to families.

“They’re going to know who the families are,” DiGeronimo said, as well as the families’ own situation.

Other Factors
DiGeronimo said that he wasn’t sure why some families would accumulate an outstanding lunch balance. Some days, DiGeronimo said, a family may send their child to school with a homemade lunch. The child may not like what is packed, so he or she may order a lunch from the cafeteria and charge it to their account, and then the parent might not be aware of the charge until they receive a notification from the school. “It could be a myriad of things.”

Another possibility is a billing issue.

Abraham Dickerson, a parent who has routinely spoken to the BOE on the subject of school nutrition, said that several parents had stated that they had been billed for lunches that their children had not eaten. He said that he was aware of at least three or four families that had received bills for lunches not consumed.

“Some paid out of not wanting to be embarrassed,” he said, adding that parents are warned that the bills could follow their children up through graduation.

Dickerson said that when his daughter was a student at Glenfield Middle School four years ago, a power outage required the students to go over to Charles H. Bullock School until the outage was corrected. The students were told that they would be back at Glenfield by lunchtime, but that didn’t happen. His daughter ordered a beverage, a bottle of water, and the family ended up getting a bill for $7. “I couldn’t understand why we were getting a bill for $7 when we weren’t even getting the school lunch,” Dickerson said. He added that he didn’t believe even a full-priced lunch, let alone a bottle of water, would cost $7.

Dickerson said that in his opinion, part of the problem was due to Montclair not having an in-house food services director.

Like many school districts, Montclair has an electronic payment system in which parents deposit money into a child’s account. Montclair uses the system MySchoolBucks.

Meal payments go to the schools via MySchoolBucks; Montclair then arranges payment to its food service provider as per the contract between the district and the provider, and the schools also receive reimbursement from the federal government for free and reduced-price lunch.

DiGeronimo recalled that when he was in high school, the standard practice was for schools to do all their meal service in-house. Now, he said, most schools outsource their meal service to a private contractor; only a handful of districts can afford to do their meal service in-house, he said.

Montclair recently switched to a new food service provider, Fairfield-based Pomptonian, for the 2017-2018 school year; the contract with Pomptonian officially went into effect July 1.