Schools look to recoup meal debts

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The student meal balance owed to Belen Consolidated Schools doubled, totaling to more than $23,000.

The student meal balance owed to Belen Consolidated Schools doubled, totaling to more than $23,000.

Parents of four Belen schools have been receiving phone calls and can expect collection letters as school officials work to recoup these costs for about 800 students.

The district is also considering hiring a collection agency to aid in recovering outstanding balances for the self-sustaining Student Nutrition Services department if internal collection attempts fail.

As of Jan. 10, students from La Merced Elementary School, Belen Family School, Belen Middle School and Belen High School owe $23,424 for meals, said Janet Sanchez, Student Nutrition Services' supervisor.

This total doubled from the amount students owed last year on meals, which was $14,000. About $11,428 of the total owed was rolled over from last year's unpaid meals, Sanchez said.

"This has been an ongoing thing and it's worse this year," Sanchez said.

Amounts owed from individual students range from 40 cents up to $339, said David Carter, director of support services.

"We want to work with parents and we want to recover costs," Carter said.

To bring down the amount owed, the department has made phone calls to parents, sent letters home notifying parents of the debt and reminded students daily in the lunch line of their pending balance, Sanchez said.

Students may qualify for a free or reduced meal rate through the National School Lunch Program. The United States Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service aids local schools by providing school districts with a cash reimbursement for eligible students, according to the USDA's website.

However, students aren't returning lunch applications, which must be submitted annually, Carter said.

To receive these funds, schools must show that at least 80 percent of their students are low income.

"If we got in all of the applications we may meet the 80 percent," Sanchez said. "Six of seven elementary schools qualify and we could qualify (throughout the district)."

With the applications submitted thus far, La Merced Elementary School is at 75 percent, Belen Family School is at 50 percent, BMS is at 76 percent and BHS is at 65 percent, Sanchez said.

The pending meal balance weighs heavily on the Student Nutrition Services, since the department sustains itself financially.

"It puts us in a bind and we have to watch our budget," Sanchez said.

Since the schools are mandated to serve additional fruits and vegetables, the cost to feed students has increased, placing another strain on the department's budget, Carter said.

If the department has costs it can not cover, such as the student meal balances, it may have to pull funds from the operational budget, translating into less money for student education.

"If we can recover charges, we can keep money in the operational budget for books, supplies and equipment for the students," Carter said.

Some students in the county struggle to find food to fill their stomachs, Carter said.

"Some of the area's kids need to eat," Carter said. "They have a hard time finding food and we don't want to turn kids away. We want to recover our expenditures."

Superintendent Ron Marquez briefed school board members on the situation at their Tuesday meeting. Sanchez reported that the Nutritional Services Department had indeed sent out collection letters with the lunch applications, as well as using the district's automated phone system to call parents with delinquent accounts.

"We left a lot of messages, but we haven't gotten responses," she told the board members.

Marquez said the next plan was to send letters from his office, in the hopes that the weight of the superintendent's name on official letterhead would prod payments.

"We will be sending the application with that letter, too, reminding them that this is for the future and doesn't address what is outstanding," Marquez said. "And one thing we might recommend to the board is a collection agency."

Marquez said the district could also look at using funds from the operational budget at the end of the school year to make up the debt.

"That would allow us to close out the debt and start fresh," he said. "The fourth option is to look at alternative lunch programs."

Marquez did point out that Albuquerque Public Schools served alternative lunches when it was in the same position — the infamous cheese sandwich — and the choice was met with much resistance.

"The last alternative, I personally don't like that. And I don't think you do either," Marquez said. "We have very generous cooks and cashiers. I can say, without a doubt, none of our students have gone hungry."

He said the district has asked the state's Public Education Department for guidance on the matter, but in the end, PED has no real opinion on how the district resolves the debt.

"Basically, it's debt that is going to be incurred within the school district and PED has no policy on collection," Marquez said.

Chavez added that Los Lunas Schools does put students on alternative lunches after nonpayment for 10 meals, a policy that is published in the newspaper at the beginning of each school year.

The only time the district makes any real headway on collecting the debt is in May, said Belen Board of Education President Sam Chavez. Shortly before graduation, seniors have to clear any outstanding balances with the district, Marquez said.

"We basically threaten the senior class that we cannot release transcripts or maybe even diplomas if they don't clear the balance," Marquez said. "There was maybe $4,000 collected last year."

That still left the $11,000-plus balance to roll over to this school year.

Chavez said he would like to see Marquez move ahead with his plan for letters to parents.

"Also, and I think the board agrees, we should stay away from alternative lunches for as long as possible," Chavez said.

Board member Larry Lindberg asked if the applications being sent to parents were in both English and Spanish. Sanchez said they were.

However one woman in the audience pointed out that often parents can't read either language.

Marquez said there may be some bilingual teachers in the district who would be willing to meet one-on-one with parents to assist with the applications. Lindberg also suggested parents be offered the opportunity to come to their child's school and meet directly with the principal to discuss the application and debts.

Board member Adrian Pino said while Marquez's plan was a good solution now, they needed to look to the future as well.

"Next year, each school needs to be accountable and pay that debt," Pino said.

Marquez agreed, saying the district considered this a serious debt.

"We have to take care of this debt right now and in the future," he said. "The money has to come from somewhere though. Ultimately, if it's not paid, it will effect students."

Lunch applications are available upon registration at the beginning of the school year, as well as on the Student Nutrition Service's website page and through cafeteria staff.

To check if your child has an outstanding meal balance or to set up payments for the amount owed, contact Student Nutrition Services at 966-1714, 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, or the students individual school cafeteria cashier.

(Editor's note: Reporter Julia Dendinger contributed to this story.)


-- Email the author at aortiz@news-bulletin.com.