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BY DAN McFARLAND
Orange County schools are trying new methods to convince students and parents that, except in special cases, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
The School Board this week adopted new procedures to deal with growing debt built up by students repeatedly charging school lunches.
Director of Administrative Services Philip Dorn said that while the intent is that all students eat lunch each school day, student food-service debt has grown rapidly in recent years. The amount owed in back lunch charges in June 2010 was $5,500. By June 2011, the amount had grown to $8,000.
And this June, Dorn said, the current student debt amounted to $20,000.
Past policy called for school principals to notify parents when student lunch charges existed or increased past certain points. When an individual student's credit balance went above a higher point, the school superintendent got involved in notifying parents about the debt, which could eventually end up in the general district court for collection.
The new policy calls for the school principal to handle parental notification and assistance until the student accrues $10 in charges. At that point, two things will happen.
First, the student charging further meals will be supplied only with a cheese sandwich and milk for lunch until the account is settled. Students with allergies or medical conditions that require alternative meals will be supplied those meals.
Second, the director of administrative services will take over the parental-notification process and will attempt to determine the cause of and possible solutions to the problem.
Dorn explained that the objective of the change was to help families when lunch money is forgotten, but at the same time to avoid abuse of the system through accidental or purposeful failure to repay the charged amounts.
Director of School Services Gene Kotulka added that the idea is to notice when a student is charging lunches on a daily basis and to communicate with the parents at that point.
"If there is a true situation at the house with finances, we can identify and work with that," he said. "We want to balance it to be fair, and make sure the kids get lunch, but not let charges get so overwhelming that we end up with the big debt that we have experienced in the past."
Over the past few years, Dorn said, his office has increased efforts to get qualified families to apply for free and reduced-price lunches.
The School Board voted 4-0 to adopt the new regulation and procedures. District 5 board member Jim Hopkins was not present.