A new report from the Warwick School Department has revealed that school lunch debt skyrocketed following an outpouring of donations to the district after national media attention shined a spotlight on the issue.
In late April, it was announced that the Warwick School Department had amassed over $78,000 in school lunch debt. An ensuing national media focus – sparked by a school policy that would have limited students’ lunch choices, whose families had failed to make arrangements regarding their debt despite attempts from the district to do so, to a sunbutter and jelly sandwich – resulted in thousands of dollars in donated money from across the country, with the idea it would go to pay off debt accrued by students.
However, a report recently prepared by the school department revealed that these donations, presumably made with good intentions, may have had an unintended consequence.
The report shows that in a 10-day period following the comprehensive media attention, over 600 student accounts that owed nothing before the publicity – and which are not a part of the free and reduced lunch program – accumulated over $7,200 in new debt. Additionally, over 400 accounts that had existing debt balances and were also not on free and reduced lunch accrued nearly $10,000 more in debt in that same span.
In total, 766 accounts racked up over $8,900 in new debt in the immediate days following the public outpouring of support, including 149 accounts who qualified for free and reduced lunch. Of accounts that had existing debt at the time of the media attention, 488 increased their total amount of debt – with only 85 of those being listed as free and reduced lunch accounts.
For context, from April 30 to May 9, the district collected $15,150 in debt – encompassing 636 accounts, of which 166 were on free or reduced lunch. Yet between May 10 and June 21, debt still increased in Warwick by a net of over $4,000. Of the some $19,000 in new debt created from May 10 to June 21, over $17,000 of that was accumulated by students not on free or reduced lunch.
Anthony Ferrucci, school finance director, said in his report to the school committee during their June 27 special meeting that, “Personally, I find it alarming that from April 30 to May 9 we collected $15,150 on accounts but, as soon as the community heard that donations were being received, from May 10 through June 21, full pay accounts increased debt by $17,100.”
“I am very disappointed that after people found out the people were donating funds, some folks went out and spent up money expecting to have the bill paid if they didn’t need it,” said School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus.
The school system has received, to this point, over $87,000 in private donations to pay for the debt. The donations have come from large organizations such as Chobani ($47,650), The Talk ($20,000), CBS ($20,000), and private donations ($300).
In addition to the large sum donations mentioned above, two separate GoFundMe fundraisers were created by Cait Clement, of Warwick, and Charlotte Clymer of Washington, D.C. The fundraisers have collected $57,357 and $47,916, respectively. No one has access to this money at this time, as it is on hold by GoFundMe. Between the two fundraisers, over 2,600 people made donations.
Approval from the school committee was needed to actually use the available donated funds, however, and so the first item on the agenda after public comment was a vote to use the donated money to cover the debt only for free and reduced lunch students – which amounted to $14,786.97. It passed unanimously.
The remainder of the donations, $73,163.03, will create a new partnership program with Westbay Community Action – where people who demonstrate difficulty in affording school lunch can apply to receive support. Any other donations received from this point will go into the program at Westbay, who will control the allocation of these funds.
From the beginning of the school lunch debt issue, the numbers revealed a vast majority of the debt was incurred by families not currently receiving free or reduced lunch. The school department has indicated that all remaining debt from so-called “full pay” families will be pursued in the normal matter by the school department.
There are three steps taken by the department to collect on a debt.
Ferrucci described the process. First, indebted families are offered to apply for the free or reduced lunch program if they haven’t already. If they do not qualify through the free lunch program, they will be referred to Westbay Community Action, who will determine if the families qualify for assistance and to what degree.
The details to qualify for the new program from Westbay are being worked out between the two bodies. At the moment, the guidelines to be accepted into the program will likely be the same as the RI LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program).
To qualify for LIHEAP, a person does not have to be on public assistance, have an unpaid heating bill, and can either rent or own their home. Households must meet 60 percent of Rhode Island’s Median Income Levels, which are set each program year. Information on how to apply can be found on the RI Department of Human Services office or website.
If families do not qualify for the Westbay program, or do not want to sign up for assistance, then the debt will be pursued. First, indebted families are given a notice sent home with students from individual principals. Then there are two separate notices from members of the central administration. Finally, a final notice from Ferrucci goes out if the central office is not contacted by the family, which notifies them that the district will have to begin collection efforts through legal means.
The school budget for 2020 was also on the agenda. Concerned citizens of Warwick made their voices heard during the public comment section of the meeting. There were no new developments for the budget. The School Committee is in continued discussions with the city to obtain funding for teachers’ assistants, maintenance and janitorial workers, and after school programs.
(With reports from Ethan Hartley)