Switzerland of Ohio gets tough on unpaid lunch bills

The Switzerland of Ohio Local Board of Education recently approved a new kind of “pay-to-play” policy: If a student’s lunch bill isn’t paid, that student isn’t playing a sport or in the band or participating in any other extracurricular activities.

It’s a move some view as necessary and others worry could punish children for circumstances beyond their control.

The board unanimously approved the policy – which would apply to a student who has more than $50 in unpaid lunch charges – in January.

Superintendent Larry Elliott said the board directed the administration to adopt the policy in light of the district’s financial struggles, including a projected $1 million deficit and the rejection of a proposed 2.5-mill permanent improvement levy.

“We have to go after some of our outstanding bills,” Elliott said.

After years of the district’s cafeteria fund operating in the black, delinquent lunch accounts “crept up here recently” to a total of about $60,000, Treasurer Lance Erlwein said. That deficit could eventually have to be covered by the general fund.

“At the end of the year, that comes out of the fund that pays for teachers and education,” he said.

The district allowed a two-week grace period, which ends on Monday, before enforcement of the policy. A number of people have taken advantage, and Erlwein said the outstanding amount has dropped below $50,000.

Most unpaid accounts are the result of honest mistakes, Elliott said. He noted families truly struggling to pay the bills can see if they’re eligible for free or reduced lunch. In addition, the new policy contains a provision saying sections can be waived “on a case-by-case basis for any parent who makes a good faith effort to pay down their account balance but is unable to do so in full.”

“If they’re making a good faith effort, we’re not going to keep a kid out of sports,” said Erlwein, noting parents can call him to discuss payment plans.

Elliott said no student would go without food, although those with a $50-or-more debt could only get certain types of food and no extra items.

Sardis resident Lawrence Romick, 83, who has grandchildren in the district, said he understands the need to collect the money but has reservations about the method chosen.

“I do believe there has to be some kind of control, but it seems cruel to punish children for the sins of the father,” he said.

Edward Carleton, vice president of the school board, said he understands the argument but noted the district is “in dire financial straits.”

“That has its merits, you know, but something had to be done,” he said.

Superintendents in Washington County said they have not considered tying lunch bills to participation in activities, both due to concerns like Romick’s and because the problem isn’t a major concern.

“We deal with it directly with the parents,” Frontier Local Superintendent Bruce Kidder said. “It’s part of the parents’ responsibility; it seems funny to punish the (children).”

Numbers on Frontier’s outstanding lunch debt were not available Tuesday.

Belpre City Schools Superintendent Tony Dunn said he wouldn’t criticize Switzerland officials since he didn’t know all the details, but he doubts such a policy would be implemented in his district.

“We’re pretty diligent about working with kids and families about lunch charges,” he said. “There’s no way a kid would ever get to $50.”

While tying eligibility to a lunch bill seems similar in some ways to linking it with grades, Dunn said, “(lunch bills are) not the direct responsibility of the student.”

Dunn said students with negative balances receive a more basic lunch, like a cheese sandwich and fruit. That occasionally leads to a call from a parent, at which time district officials can work with them on the issue and possibly help them sign up for the free and reduced lunch program.

Jennifer Currey, AVI Fresh resident director for Belpre and Marietta City schools, said negative balances in both districts are “negligible.”

Warren Local Superintendent Tom Gibbs said that district rarely has an outstanding lunch balance over $20.

“We send out letters if they build up a $5 balance, hold report cards and that type of thing” he said. “Generally, if we make a phone call and indicate that the student will get an ‘alternate’ lunch (i.e. cheese sandwich or something basic) until the account is paid the parent generally pays.”

In the Fort Frye Local district, where Gibbs also serves as superintendent, the highest balance he’s aware of was $35, which was the result of an error in a free lunch identification.