Archived Story

Negative balance: Students rack up $12,000 food service bill

Published 7:49pm Saturday, February 9, 2013


Lunchrooms have Beaufort County Schools seeing red.

Negative student balances totaled nearly $12,000 in January. Each school contributed to the negative balance to some degree.

At the top of the list were Eastern Elementary School with $4,203.90, John Cotten Tayloe Elementary School with $3,359.04 and Southside High School with $1,079.27.

On the other side of the spectrum were the Early College High School with a negative balance of $17.51, Ed Tech with $25.70 and Chocowinity Primary with $54.65.

Beaufort County Schools will not turn away any student who needs a meal. Each day, the meals are charged to individual student accounts. And the negative balances continue to escalate.

The district’s balances nearly doubled between October 31 and January 2. In October, the district total was $6,926.78. By November 30, the balances had crept up to $9,517.16.

The negative balances are the result of several factors. Students who are ineligible for free meals have to bring money and pay for meals daily or use prepaid meal accounts.

Problems arise when parents prepay for a basic lunch and students start charging extra entrees and a la cart items like ice creams and snacks that were not budgeted.

In other cases, students who qualify for free or reduced meals have not turned in the appropriate paperwork to enroll in the federal programs.

Parents have to prove eligibility for the program by filling out and submitting applications annually. The first 20 days of school are a grace period where any student eligible the previous year may continue receiving free or reduced meals. After that grace period, parents are responsible for the meal fees until new applications have been approved.

Parents can submit the applications at any point in the year, but the applications are not retroactive. Any meal fees that have accrued are the responsibility of the parents.

Superintendent Don Phipps said the district is still looking for solutions to the ongoing issue.

The district has been doing its homework, checking with other school districts to see how they have dealt with negative balances. Some districts have seen negative balances of more than $100 million and have been forced to use a collection agency.

Phipps said the district was not ready to consider that option. They want to help those who qualify – or even think there is a possibility they might qualify – for free or reduced meals apply for the aid.

Phipps wanted to assure parents that all applications, whether approved or not, are destroyed after use.

“We are not trying to get in anyone’s business,” he said. “Our only purpose is to determine who qualifies.”

Another option employed by neighboring districts was to feed students alternative meals like peanut butter sandwiches when they could not pay for meals. The school board was opposed to that option. Phipps said the meal would still have to meet federal nutrition standards and any free meal placed before students would result in a loss for the district.

Other schools have had Parent Teacher Organizations fundraise and start an emergency charge account for students. Phipps said those funds were depleted in a matter of days.

Last semester, principals were given scripts and tasked with calling the homes of students with negative balances.

The districts most recent series of calls had the best results.

“We did a system-wide call. Really, it was a plea for help,” Phipps said.

He recorded a message explaining the rising negative balance and asked parents to settle the accounts. Principals were given discretion in determining which families received the Phipps call.

Phipps updated the school board’s personnel and curriculum committee last week. Principals said the applications for free and reduced lunches were flying off the shelves and negative balances were finally on a decline.

“Our charge balance is down about $2,000, which is good. They’re under $10,000 for the first time in a while,” he said.

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