The Willmar schools are declaring that there’s no free lunch — at least, for those who can afford to pay.
The district of 4,100 students about 100 miles west of the Twin Cities has a deficit in its school meal accounts of about $13,000. And in most cases, those who are delinquent aren’t poor, said Superintendent Jeff Holm. They’re people who can afford to pay — but won’t ante up.
Some have even been taken to court by the district and ordered to pay — “and basically, they thumb their nose at us, in spite of a court judgment,” Holm said.
The Willmar school board is considering a new policy for unpaid meal charges that could lead to the loss of privileges for students who consistently ignore warnings to pay. The policy would not apply to students eligible for free or reduced-price meals, who make up about 60 percent of the district’s students.
After several unsuccessful attempts have been made to collect delinquent meal accounts — including a court judgment — middle school and high school students could be barred from sports and other extracurricular activities, including school dances, under the policy. High school students also could be barred from prom and refused a parking pass.
“It’s a very small number of people this would ever apply to,” Holm said. “We feel we give them lots of paths to avoid those consequences. If they would make some kind of good-faith effort to pay something, we would never impose any additional consequences.”
Mike Reynolds, the school board chairman, said the district needed to do something to deal with its most uncooperative debtors.
“If you go to Conciliation Court [and win a judgment] and you don’t get any respect from the parents — we’re just looking at options that will get their attention,” he said.
Three out of four U.S. school districts are owed money for unpaid school meals, according to a survey last year by the School Nutrition Association. And Minnesota’s not exempt.
“Most school districts deal with delinquent lunch accounts,” said Bruce Lombard, a spokesman for the Minnesota School Boards Association. The issue, he added, has been a concern “for many years.”
The Willmar board held a first reading of the new policy at a meeting last week. Holm said the board will consider finalizing the policy at an upcoming meeting later this month or in early September.