HARRISONBURG — Every year it is inevitable that school divisions will have unpaid meals from the school year leading to breakfast and lunch debt.
Despite the school division’s best efforts to collect on the debt, some families can’t afford to pay or are unwilling to for whatever reason.
Rockingham County Public Schools has a meal debt of nearly $24,600, which has accumulated over the course of multiple years, not just this past school year, said Gerald Lehman, supervisor of nutrition services. That’s about $2 for every student in the school division. Although there are only 1,069 students with outstanding lunch debt.
The problem is a complicated one, making finding an effective solution just as complicated.
Families meeting the qualifications for free and reduced lunch are the ones who should feel the burden of paying for school meals the most, so according to Lehman, it begs the question, “Who isn’t paying and why?”
It could be families not qualified for free and reduced lunch, but are still maxed out on monthly out-of-pocket expenses. Or perhaps families know the school division will feed their children anyway and therefore don’t bother to pay, Lehman said.
“There are likely many reasons why it happens,” Lehman said. And while this is not a unique problem for Rockingham County Public Schools, it’s one that seems to be getting worse.
While Lehman couldn’t say for sure why the problem is getting worse, it could be due to recent General Assembly legislation that forbids school divisions from mentioning to students that they have a negative balance.
Possible intention of this legislation might be to not shame students — which Lehman said is not something the school division would do anyway. Because of the blanket nature of the legislation, older students are prevented from knowing that they owe money.
“It’s disappointing, and it makes it a tricky problem,” Lehman said.
With a budget of more than $5 million, $24,600 might not seem like a lot, but it’s funds that can’t go to other things at the same time.
Some schools have charity funds for paying off lunch debt.
“We make every use of it,” Lehman said.
The school division will continue trying to collect on the meal debt beginning next year. However, without answers to the problem, the issue will likely continue, Lehman said.
At the end of the day, Rockingham County Public Schools is committed to feeding every child, and no child will go without a meal.