IWCS ended recent school year with $38K ‘lunch debt’

Published 4:22 pm Monday, August 19, 2019

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Some debt may be from students who graduated, moved away


Isle of Wight County Schools ended its 2018-2019 school year with a lower “lunch debt” than the $41,000-plus figure reported at the end of the previous school year — but not by much.

Rachel Trollinger, Isle of Wight County Schools’ executive director of budget and finance, informed the county’s School Board at its July 11 meeting that the school division’s lunch debt — this being debt that students occur when they do not have enough money to pay for lunch but are still provided with a meal — stood at roughly $38,000 as of the last day of school. She added that of this total, roughly $33,500 comes from individual student debts over $50.

The debts over $50, per a policy the School Board adopted earlier this year, have been turned over to Isle of Wight County Treasurer Judith Wells for collection. School Board policies governing meals further state that students who owe $10 or more will be unable to participate in certain supplementary school activities — such as dances, sports and band — until the debt is paid. At the high school level, parking passes, school-issued laptops or iPads and participation in graduation are also subject to being taken away due to unpaid debt.

Despite the hundreds of individual debts over $50, Isle of Wight County Schools’ spokeswoman Lynn Briggs confirmed that no one in Windsor High School’s class of 2019 was unable to walk at graduation due to unpaid lunch debt. Asked if this was because the WHS class of 2019 didn’t have any debt, or if someone had paid off their debts, Briggs said it was “a combination of things.”

“We did see more parents paying [off] their debt closer to the end of the year,” she said. “We also received donations specifically designated for WHS lunch debt, which alleviated any remaining debt for parents on senior accounts.”

The remaining $38,000 debt, while still high, constitutes a significant reduction from the figure reported as of Dec. 31, 2018 — when the debt had risen to over $72,000. IWCS officials claimed in February that over $60,000 of the Dec. 31 figure was from students whose families appeared to have the ability to pay, citing data from the division’s meal database. This identifies whether students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. The database indicated, according to division staff, that a majority of the debt had come from students whose families had either not applied for free or reduced-price lunches and/or whose family incomes were above the threshold to qualify.

Asked for a breakdown of the remaining $38,000 lunch debt in terms of how much was incurred during the 2018-2019 school year versus how much is part of the $41,000 debt reported at the end of the previous school year, Briggs said the school division does not have the ability to identify what amount, if any, is linked to unpaid balances from prior school years.

This suggests the possibility that some of the remaining lunch debt on the school division’s books is from students who have graduated or who transferred to another school system in 2018 or prior, and have been out of the IWCS school system for over a year now. When asked about this, Briggs agreed that it is possible some of the total lunch debt is from students who had graduated.

When asked if IWCS makes any effort to collect lunch debts from the parents of students who have either graduated or transferred to another school system, she said, “As of June — yes. If they owed over $50, their names were turned over to the county.”

Briggs then confirmed that the county treasurer’s office would still attempt to collect the debts over $50, even if that parent’s child is no longer a student with IWCS.

She was uncertain whether the treasurer’s office could still collect in instances where a student had moved out of the county. However, Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson said he believed the treasurer’s office would still be able to collect in such a situation.

According to School Board Policy JHCH, the division superintendent is tasked with ensuring that federal child nutrition funds allocated to Isle of Wight County Schools are not used to offset the cost of unpaid meals, and that the division’s child nutrition program is reimbursed for any bad (uncollectible) debt. Reimbursement, Briggs explained, must come from sources other than federal child nutrition funds, as per the School Board’s policy. She added that this money would most likely need to be reallocated from instruction or other areas to cover debts in the division’s child nutrition account deemed uncollectible.

Asked if writing off lunch debts deemed uncollectible would have any impact on the amount of money the division receives from the federal government, Briggs said, “Not that I’m aware of.”

She explained that the federal government provides funding for “reimbursable meals,” which refer to free and reduced-price meals. The lunch debt, Briggs said, is from full-price meals, which are not reimbursed by the federal government.

$225K food services loss reported

Trollinger also reported that the school division’s food services department as a whole reported a loss of roughly $225,000 as of the end of May. The largest contributor to this overall deficit, however, according to Briggs, was not unpaid lunch debt, but rather $81,006 in U.S. commodities not used during the 2018-2019 school year.

The IWCS spokeswoman explained that schools purchase food through the federal government, which can acquire large volumes of food at a lower cost per unit. The federal government then passes these savings onto schools in the form of rebates.

If school divisions do not sell as much food during a school year as was anticipated when budgeting for the amount of rebates it expects to receive, this results in a reported loss. IWCS expects to receive about $40,000 in rebates during the 2019-2020 school year for commodities purchased during the 2018-2019 school year, which will help offset about half of the reported loss.

Also contributing to the $225,000 loss was the $42,328 the division spent on salaries and unused food to open Windsor High School as an emergency shelter when Hurricane Florence was projected to impact Virginia last year. This amount, Briggs explained, did not meet the threshold for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The division lost another $14,928 as a result of the child and adult care programs at Windsor Elementary and Westside Elementary being discontinued. When asked why these programs were discontinued and why doing so resulted in a loss for food services, she said that the school division did not qualify based on its free and reduced-price lunch numbers at those locations.

“Our plan for the future is to continue increasing the number of meals sold by enhancing the [cafeteria] lines in places and continuing to monitor items and quality of offerings,” Briggs said. “The increase in prices for meals and a la carte items should help build revenues as well.”

Smithfield High and Smithfield Middle, she explained, have new grab-and-go stations with new sneeze guards. The walls in the serving lines have also been updated with new graphics, which she said are not advertisements, bur rather just pictures/designs of food.

“It’s to make the area more visually appealing to students,” Briggs said.