New Kershaw County School District policy could send excessive student meal debt to collection agency

The district calls it a last resort for students with more than $50 of debt.
Updated: Dec. 3, 2019 at 5:49 PM EST
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CAMDEN, S.C. (WIS) - Students’ school lunch debt, if more than $50, could now be sent to a collection agency as the Kershaw County School District implements a new policy.

The school district said over the last year and a half, it has absorbed $65,000 in student meal debt.

No matter how much debt a student carries, no student is ever denied a meal, the district said. So after putting together a committee consisting of parents, teachers, administrators and community members, officials came up with a process to address the ongoing problem.

  1. When a student’s meal debt reaches $50, the district will notify the family in the form of a letter. It will inform the family of the amount owed and request it is paid in full in 30 days. If it remains unpaid within that time frame, a $15 late fee will be assessed.
  2. A second letter will be sent to the family if, after 30 days, the debt remains unpaid. It will be accompanied by another $15 late fee and will give the family 15 more days to pay the debt in full.
  3. If the debt continues to go unpaid, the district will send a third letter to the student’s family, informing them the debt is being turned over to a collection agency working with the district. The family will then be responsible for any additional fees that are associated with the collection agency.

The Kershaw County School District is home to about 11,000 students. Officials said about 4 percent, or 440 students, carry a balance of $50 or more of school meal debt and will face this process.

To avoid these issues, district spokeswoman Mary Anne Byrd said the district is encouraging parents to apply for free and reduced meal benefits. The application is available on the district’s website.

“The collection agency is the last resort,” Byrd said. “If the family is struggling and they’ve tried the application process and that didn’t work, contact us. We’ll work with families, we’ll set up a payment plan... we want to be of help to them.”

Only 1 percent of the 440 students who carry an excessive balance are receiving reduced meal benefits.

“We don’t want families to think if they didn’t apply at the beginning of year that they’re out of luck,” Byrd said. “We actually, after we sent a message out to our families (Monday), had an uptick in families who applied online when we checked this morning.”

Processing and approval of applications takes anywhere between 24 and 48 hours, according to the district.

However, it’s important to note that even if a family qualifies for the benefits, it does not erase the debt on the student’s account.

The district said it initially presented this new policy to parents as part of its registration application parents filled out online this summer. Additionally, it said it sends a weekly text or phone call to any family with a negative balance, encouraging them to pay off the debt.

“We looked to other school districts and they were using this process,” Byrd said. “The committee looked at a lot of options.”

Up until last year, the district’s previous policy included an “alternate lunch.” According to Byrd, once a student accrued $12 in lunch debt, they were given a different lunch than other students, although equally nutritious, she said.

“We got a lot of feedback from our parents and community that they didn’t like that solution,” she said. “So in April of 2018 we brought together this committee to throw around some other ideas for a solution.”

The district and collection agency will work together to remain in communication with the family. The district said the collection agency charges it a flat fee and money is given directly to the district.

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