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Unpaid meal balances a growing problem

posted Apr 29, 2019, 12:57 PM by Granger Meador   [ updated Apr 29, 2019, 12:57 PM ]
The Child Nutrition program of Bartlesville Public Schools provides 2,000 breakfasts and 4,000 lunches daily. The program is self-funded separately from all other district operations, and heavily reliant on federal free-or-reduced meal subsidies to make ends meet.

About 56% of the children in the district's elementary schools qualify for free-or-reduced meals. The percentage declines slightly to about 52% of the middle school students, while only about 40% of the high school students currently qualify. The district is confident more students would qualify, particularly at the high school, but it is a struggle to get some families to apply annually, even with a convenient online application.

Convincing families to apply for free-or-reduced meals would help reduce the unpaid meal balances, which have exploded since the district discontinued using alternate meals in 2017-18. Before then, when a student had a negative balance on their meal account, the hot meal they selected had to be thrown away at checkout and an alternate cold meal was provided to avoid further increasing the unpaid balance. While this technically balanced the books, it was counter-intuitive to throw away the hot meal and substitute the low-cost alternative, with concerns about inadvertently "meal shaming" students whose parents were not doing their part to cover the cost of a hot meal.

Beginning in 2017-18, the district discontinued the alternate meals and simply added the cost of the hot meal to a student's meal account balance. However, this caused the unpaid balances to skyrocket from about $1,400 annually to about $25,000 in 2017-18, which was only partially offset by a $10,000 anonymous donation from a district alumnus. 

The unpaid balances have worsened considerably in 2018-19. Since the district can no longer "write off" negative balances at the end of an academic year, the unpaid balances impact the district's Child Nutrition fund. If things do not improve, that fund will be depleted, requiring the district to reimpose the counter-intuitive alternate meals to avoid ever-escalating unpaid meal balances.

Last fall, when the trendline on unpaid balances showed they could reach $45,000 by June, the district began handing letters to students with unpaid balances to take home to their parents, but that did little to improve things. So the district substituted robocalls and texts to parents with negative balances. That improved things somewhat, but the unpaid balances still reached over $27,000 by the end of April 2019 and are expected to reach $32,000 by the end of the school year. 

At that burn rate, the district will eventually be forced to bring back alternate meals in the coming years to avoid tapping its General Fund, which is mostly used for employee salaries. Obvious solutions such as raising the prices on paid meals offer no relief since regulations also cap annual meal price increases to 10 cents per year, which is not nearly enough to offset the unpaid balances. The district does not have sufficient personnel to hound parents individually about unpaid balances, and personal calls to the top 10 families with unpaid balances have proven fruitless. 

Collection agencies are too expensive to hire for the problem and would no doubt alienate parents who struggle to make ends meet. The district refuses to pursue other controversial measures which punish a student for a parent's failure to pay, such as denying students with unpaid meal balances access to extracurricular activities and events, which are an important part of every child's education.

If you have questions about schools meals and the dilemma the district is facing, please call the Child Nutrition department at 918-333-7966 or email Jon Beckloff, the Child Nutrition Manager, at BeckloffJL@bps-ok.org.
Alternate meal

The Meals Regulations Catch-22

  1. What is the issue? The district can no longer write-off unpaid meals at the end of the school year. The unpaid meal balances are on track to reach about $32,000 by June. If that is not drastically improved, the district will eventually be forced to reinstitute alternate meals to avoid bankrupting its Child Nutrition fund.
  2. How does an alternate meal work? The district cannot charge for a meal until it has verified that all of the required components are on the tray, so the register must be at the end of the line. But if a student at the end of the line has an unpaid balance, the only way the regulations allow to not further increase that unpaid balance is to throw away the hot meal the student selected and substitute an alternate meal of a cold sandwich and apple.
  3. Why don't we just raise prices? Regulations only allow a 10-cent increase in meal prices each year, which is not enough to cover the unpaid balances now being incurred.
  4. What is the district doing now or has it already tried to improve the unpaid balances?  Take-home letters given to students with unpaid balances were ineffective. Robocalls and robotexts to parents with unpaid balances has reduced the projected unpaid balances from over $45,000 to about $32,000, but that is still too high to avoid eventually bankrupting the Child Nutrition fund.
  5. What do parents need to do? Any parents who are not paying for their child's meals should apply for free-or-reduced meals. If a parent does not qualify for that assistance, they need to prioritize funding their child's school meals over other expenses, or accept that the district will eventually be forced to return to only provide the alternate meal for their child.
  6. Why can't Bartlesville offer free school meals like Tulsa does? Most Tulsa schools have such extremely high rates of free-or-reduced meals that they qualify for a Community Eligibility Provision. Bartlesville only qualifies to offer that option for breakfasts at two of its six elementary schools. 
  7. What if I have more questions? Please contact the Child Nutrition department at 918-333-7966 or email Jon Beckloff, the Child Nutrition Manager, at BeckloffJL@bps-ok.org.