DALLAS — The Dallas School District will consider a policy that allows it to send unpaid school lunch accounts to collections.
Debbie MacLean, the district’s director of fiscal services, said the food service program has more than $11,000 in unpaid accounts. It started the school year with $4,700 in unpaid meals from the previous year.
“This is the highest it’s been,” MacLean said.
Currently, the district’s recourse is to send letters to the parents or guardians of students with unpaid balances. MacLean said that 379 students have negative balances. In a few cases, the balance is more than $500.
“We have standardized letters that are going out to households. They go out weekly,” she said. “Also, we have our food service clerical staff making phone calls and making contact with parents. That helps to a degree, but not enough.”
MacLean said the district has fewer families filling out applications for free and reduced lunch, which could help those who qualify. Federal and state programs reimburse the district for providing meals to those who meet the requirements.
She added that the number of qualified families in the district determines how much Title I funding it receives. Title I funds are used for programs to help students who aren’t performing at grade-level.
“For those folks who are not paying for their meals and not filling out an application, we don’t have any kind of compelling consequence to help them do that,” MacLean said. “We are in the business of building relationships with the students and the families, so to have a big stick isn’t going to help with that, but we also feel like we just can’t let this keep happening.”
MacLean said the district’s struggle in collecting meal fees is the unintended consequence of House Bill 3454, legislation that bans school districts from refusing children meals or providing a less costly “alternative meal” due to nonpayment. She said Dallas isn’t the only school district facing the problem.
Board members expressed support for a policy that would allow some accounts to go to collections. They also said the district should offer to help families fill out the application for free or reduced lunches, or hold workshops to inform families of available assistance.
“I think they need some incentive … to say that you have a responsibility here. If you need assistance, it’s available, but it doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility,” said board member Dave Hunt. “It sends a message to the people who are treating this like, ‘you have to provide it, so why should I care?’ You have to care because if you don’t, we have other recourse. It’s the last option, but you need to know it’s there.”
Board member Jon Woods said if families pay something, even just $10 per month, they shouldn’t go to collections.
“The important part is payment on the debt and no more future debt,” Woods said.
MacLean said other districts that have sent accounts to collections said that the threat of sending a bill to collections has motivated parents to set up payment plans.
“We need to write a policy that has compassion for those in need,” board member Michael Blanchard said. “I think we need to reflect that if it’s just a matter of education around filling out the paperwork or assisting who qualifies for free and reduced lunch, that we want to aid them and make sure they are aware of what is available to them.”
MacLean added that the food service program is currently running in a deficit, but she expects it will be in the positive by the end of the year.
“Again, comparing to last year, it seems like we’ve got to get so far into the school year before we start settling out a bit,” she said. “We saw that last year, and it seems like we are still in the same place.”
She said the loss now is 49 cents per meal. At this time last year it was 58 cents per meal. The cost of food and labor as a percentage of revenue has improved from this time last year, but is still short of the district’s goal. This year, the costs are 103 percent of revenue compared to 109 percent in the 2017-18 school year, she said.
She said the Institute of Child Nutrition, a federally-funded program for research, training and education for child nutrition programs, has made recommendations for the district to achieve.
“Their recommendation is that we try for 80 to 85 percent of revenue for the labor and food costs,” MacLean said. “We continue to be higher than that.”