By ETHAN HARTLEY -- The Warwick School Committee decided last year that it would no longer force students who were delinquent on lunch payments to eat a SunButter and jelly sandwich. It was considered by some to be controversial...
The Warwick School Committee decided last year that it would no longer force students who were delinquent on lunch payments to eat a SunButter and jelly sandwich. It was considered by some in the community to be a “shaming” tactic, as a student could, in theory, have been identified as not having money for lunch based on their limited selection.
The result of the change? The budget line item that tracked how much the district owed in unpaid lunch fees jumped 500 percent, from around $9,000 in June of 2017 to around $45,000 in June of 2018.
Now, the school committee is actively discussing whether or not they will re-institute the old policy, which would once again restrict students to a limited selection of a singular lunch choice and put pressure on consistently delinquent parents that have racked up high lunch debts. The policy reintegration was given a first reading during the Nov. 20 meeting of the school committee, but was tabled until the meeting in January during Tuesday night.
This means that the newly elected school committee – on which three new members will be instilled – will take up this as one of the first major decisions to make when they are sworn in.
From the administration’s perspective, the policy change would give some teeth back to enable them to collect money that simply needs to be paid. Without any recourse to put pressure on delinquent accounts, there isn’t much to be done to try and collect it – as evidenced by the huge jump in owed money from 2017 to 2018.
“Some students, the only thing that resonated was, ‘Why do I have to have a cheese sandwich when I want a burger?’ That made the parents pay attention,” said finance director Anthony Ferrucci during a recent interview.
The sandwich in question – historically a cheese sandwich, as mentioned by Ferrucci, was utilized – has changed (SunButter is the modern, hypoallergenic choice). But what also has changed, and would be the case with this proposed policy, is that the SunButter and jelly sandwich is a regular lunch item. It would not, by itself, out a student as being delinquent or unable to afford other options.
“No child should go hungry, but a SunButter and jelly sandwich includes milk and everything else that a regular meal includes and it is actually on the menu,” said Karen Bachus, School Committee Clerk during the Nov. 20 meeting. “So, it’s not an issue where somebody’s child gets SunGutter and nobody else gets SunButter.”
The policy would also put in place a lenient system of multiple written and telephoned notifications prior to the student being limited to only the SunButter sandwich, and plenty of chances for setting up a payment remediation plan prior to school going for the nuclear option – which would be to forward consistently delinquent accounts to a debt collection agency that would then go after the parents of such accounts to collect moneys owed.
Bachus, who sits on the committee’s policy committee, said she would support the policy change because getting rid of the policy clearly had a significantly negative impact on how many people began to subvert paying for lunches. She also agreed with the system of notification that would alert parents multiple times prior to taking any real action.
“It gives them time, the family and parents know by then, they will be contacted,” she said. “And if they choose not to contact us to set up some sort of payment plan, then they are in fact, if you ask me, shaming their own children and themselves.”
School Committee Chairwoman Bethany Furtado agreed, saying that some of her own grandchildren prefer the SunButter sandwich over other options anyways, and that if parents need help paying for lunches, they likely qualify for the free and reduced lunch program and need to get that process started, to which Bachus agreed as well.
“The Warwick School Dept is losing a great deal of money,” Bachus said. “If children are eligible, then they will get free or reduced lunch. We need more parents to sign up for that.”
School committee member David Testa arose concerns about how the school principals would track delinquent accounts and how the schools would handle a situation where a delinquent student chose lunch items besides the SunButter sandwich – how would the school address the problem once the student got to the kiosk to pay? Nonetheless, he recognized the issue needed some resolution.
“It’s a problem,” he said. “There’s no question it’s a problem.”
Ferrucci said, at this time, it was his responsibility to let the school committee hear out the concerns of the public and then make a decision they feel is best.
“I basically have tried to step aside and say just tell me what you want me to police,” he said.
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