Parents owe Columbia Public Schools $77,000 in unpaid meals

Parents owe Columbia Public Schools -77000 in unpaid meals

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Columbia Public School officials said families owe them thousands of dollars for meals, but that number has shrunk over the past few years.

"A lot of it has been paid off by the district," said Nutrition Services Director Laina Fullum. "By regulation, we cannot carry that debt so what will happen is periodically, that debt gets shifted and cleared but doesn't go away. That's money taken away from other things."

The debt is more of a "parent problem" and district officials said they never punish a child for unpaid debt. 

"We believe firmly that our children should be eating lunch or even a breakfast," said Fullum. "We don't want them singled out. A hungry child can't learn."

A parent will be notified by phone if they owe one cent. If the debt increases, the district uses several methods, including a collection agency.

The district keeps in contact with families and the first line of defense is to try to get them signed up for free or reduced lunch. The parents involved in the district's debt are ones paying full price for meals.

"Sometimes people fall through the cracks," said Fullum. "They forget to turn it in or just running short. That can add up in a person's household."

The debt is a far cry from what it used to be, she said. In the 2014-2015 school year, they noticed it was up around $120,000. By the middle of the school year, they were able to bring it down to $111,000.

By 2016, the debt was down to $67,000 but it fluctuates because they "charge a little more every year," Fullum explained.

Fullum credits the collection agency, Hawthorn Recovery Services, with a lot of their ability to collect from parents without having to take legal action.

Just in the past year, the Southern Boone School District was looking for solutions to its unpaid debt. Parents owed the district $30,000.

Superintendent Chris Felmlee said Friday that since last June, they've cut that debt in half.

"We are trying to hold parents more accountable who consistently allow the debt to grow over time and be more aware of accounting procedures so that when debt goes over $50, they know that this is something they need to attend to," said Felmlee.

They had discussed not allowing parents to attend graduation if they had unpaid meal debt, but Felmlee said they didn't have to follow through with that. He said letting parents know about the debt has worked well.

"So far, so good," he said.

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