IW Schools taking steps to collect ‘lunch debt’

Published 1:58 pm Monday, March 11, 2019

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[Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part article about “lunch debut,” which the Isle of Wight County School system is facing. The Tidewater News published the first part on Sunday, March 3.]


A Dec. 28, 2018, article by The Washington Post states that lawmakers and anti-poverty activists have dubbed the practice of taking a student’s lunch away and handing him or her an alternative lunch — usually a cheese sandwich — as “lunch shaming” because other students notice what’s going on. Isle of Wight County Schools spokeswoman Lynn Briggs and Rachel Trollinger, the division’s executive director of finance and budget, both confirmed that Isle of Wight County Schools’ 2016 decision was influenced by the growing statewide and national movement to end “lunch shaming” practices.

Trollinger informed the School Board at its February meeting that at the end of the 2015-2016 school year, when “lunch shaming” was still in place, the division’s lunch debt was at just over $620. By the end of the 2016-2017 school year — the first school year where “lunch shaming” was abolished — that figure had grown to over $13,000. By the end of the 2017-2018 school year, it had grown again to over $41,000, and as of Dec. 31, 2018, it had grown to over $72,000. County Administrator Randy Keaton gave a similar account of the lunch debt timeline to the county’s Board of Supervisors when they discussed the matter at their February work session.

At said work session, Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree said that based on experiences he had with his son, he thought that part of the problem might be that students were loading up their trays with extra cheeseburgers, cookies and other a la carte items, thus, causing the money that parents give their children for school lunches to run out quicker than the parents had anticipated. However, Briggs clarified that students without lunch money cannot charge a la carte items like these. Debt is only allowed for the basic school lunch.

Per Virginia Department of Education policy, school officials are not allowed to discuss any debt owed with the students themselves. All communication regarding debt must be solely between school officials and parents, including when one of the above privileges is taken away.

“We cannot go to a student, even a high school student, and say, ‘You can’t play this week,’” said Supt. Dr. Jim Thornton. “We need to say, ‘You have to go ask your parents why you can’t play.’ It is so technical now, we have to be very careful what we say and do.”

Upon hearing this, Devin Fitzgerald, Smithfield High School’s student liaison to the School Board, suggested that not informing students may be contributing to the problem.

“When a student starts to go into debt, no one tells them,” Fitzgerald said. “My friend, she is over $100 in debt.”

As of Feb. 14, division staff had been successful in collecting just over $16,000, which amounts to roughly 22 percent of the total Dec. 31, 2018, debt. The division is also now working with Isle of Wight County Treasurer Judith Wells to arrange for her to contact parents if and when a student’s debt reaches or exceeds $50.

“The treasurer can take additional measures to collect the debt, similar to what they may do for delinquent tax accounts,” Briggs said. She added that the first step in the treasurer’s intervention would be another letter to parents — this time from the county — informing them of the debt and deadline for payment.

Don Robertson, assistant county administrator, explained that among the options for collection Wells has at her disposal if the debt remains unpaid is a DMV stop. This is when a locality will ask the Department of Motor Vehicles to not allow a resident who owes delinquent local taxes to register or renew the registration on his or her vehicle until the debt is paid.

Some businesses, individuals and churches have begun collecting donations to help pay off the debt. Wharf Hill Brewing Company in downtown Smithfield offered to donate $1 anytime someone orders fried green tomatoes, onion rings, “Whachos,” or any version of “Aunt Mary’s Meatballs.” As of Feb. 20, the restaurant had raised $845. Briggs said that Beaver Dam Baptist Church had also reached out to Carrsville Elementary to see what could be done to help with the debt, and Elevate Church, which meets in Georgie D. Tyler Middle School, had also reached out to that school.

Thornton cautioned, however, that those who wish to donate money for this reason must either name specific indebted students or state that they wish to pay off the top five highest debts, or something to that effect. The schools, he said, cannot choose whose debts get paid via donations and whose don’t.