Directors set record straight on updated policy

By Gary Weckselblatt

With the amount of student lunch debt skyrocketing from nearly $1,700 a year to what is on track to reach $40,000 this school year, the School Board updated Policy 617, Student Financial Obligations.

The policy, much of which had already been in effect, added an additional component that states: "Refer the delinquent financial debt obligation to a collection agency, when debts exceed $1,000."

The policy, which passed 7-2 on November 14th, includes any type of student debt. It states: "Financial obligations/debts include, but is not limited to, instances where a student accrues a debt to the school district through the loss or damage of school district property, materials, and/or equipment, and other financial obligations from receiving good or services. Students and others who damage or deface school property may be prosecuted and punished under the law. Parents/Guardians shall be held accountable for the actions of their child."

Lunch Debt Analysis Chart

Impact of PA Act 55 On Lunch Debt

During meetings of both the Policy Committee and School Board, directors expressed concerns over misinformation, including inaccurate posts on social media and comments made at meetings about the updated policy "starving poor children."

To set the record straight, Directors Kaylyn Mitchell and Ron Jackson, the Board's new president and vice president, respectively, repeatedly said Quakertown students are never denied a lunch, even if they have no money to pay for it.

"We will never deny a child a lunch," Mrs. Mitchell said at the November 14th Board meeting.

Mr. Jackson made the point once again at the December 5th meeting following comments from a community member that implied otherwise. "There is nobody in this district who goes without lunch, whether they can pay for it or not. When people say this district is not feeding children that concerns me because it’s not true."

Like districts across Pennsylvania, student lunch debt in Quakertown has catapulted since Act 55 of 2017 was passed by the General Assembly. From 2014-16, the district's total student lunch debt ranged from $1,616 to $1,705 annually. Since Act 55 went into effect, student lunch debt in QCSD has soared from $12,000 in 2017 to $27,000 in 2018 and is on pace to hit $40,000 this year.

Students on free and reduced lunch are not the reason for the growing debt, according to Jennifer Weed, the Policy Committee chair. "The taxpayer should not be subsiding lunches for those that can afford it,” she said.

Said Keith Micucci: "We’re not talking about folks that can’t afford it. Those folks are taken care of. So this is not the poverty group. There is a subset of people here that may try to beat the system. This is folks that can afford it, and taxpayers are forced to pay for it. We’re not ostracizing people. We’re not trying to financially bankrupt families in our district over a lunch bill. We’re asking for the people that can afford it to pay your debt. Those people that are under hardship, come forward and we’ll work something out. And we’ll move forward."

Jonathan Kern added: "If you read the policy, we have extreme prejudice of compassion and we’re definitely not trying to hurt kids. But we also have a crazy spike (in debt). If you look at the actual data, miraculously it increased by this insane amount (following the passage of Act 55). ... I don't know how the message got out that people could stop paying their debt. But it’s a stark contrast."

The Administrative Regulations for the policy enforce the Board’s intent that the policy be implemented with understanding, compassion and sensitivity to each students personal situation or family hardship, said Assistant Superintendent Nancianne Edwards.

"I hope we never have to impose any consequences on students," Ms. Edwards said, "but it will only be in case a parent does not make any attempt to fulfill their responsibility. Regardless of the why, every person has the ability to act responsibly. Respond to the notices they’re receiving in some way and work something out.”

The notices are sent every two weeks to parents by Chartwells K12, the district’s food service provider.

Gary Weckselblatt, QCSD Director of Communications, writes about the people and the programs that impact the Quakertown Community School District. He can be reached at 215-529-2028 or gweckselblatt@qcsd.org.
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