WOOD RIVER JCT. — With only seven of 12 members present, the Chariho School Committee continued to discuss, but did not resolve, the issues of student lunch debt and the use of cellphones.
The district's outstanding debt for student lunches is now $18,650. Schools with the greatest lunch debt are the high school, with $6,037, and the middle school, with $2,806.
The dilemma for committee members is finding a way to collect the outstanding debt without shaming students. The Warwick and Cumberland school districts recently announced that they will serve cold sandwich lunches to students with outstanding lunch debt. In Cumberland, where the debt has ballooned to $50,000, students with outstanding lunch balances of $50 or greater will be served lunches consisting of a sandwich, baby carrots, raisins, and white milk.
Hopkinton member Catherine Giusti said Chariho would not serve different lunches to certain students.
“We do not have a cold lunch option for a child who has an outstanding lunch debt,” she said. “I don’t foresee that changing. This is another issue where we need to keep exploring options. I am uncomfortable of placing the onus of debt collection on a child. I am reticent to withhold privileges from a child because their parents owe lunch money; however, the lunch debt is growing and we do need to think helpful and maybe creative ways of collecting it.”
Students who qualify for free and reduced lunches are not affected by the lunch debt policy.
“If you’re on free and reduced lunch, you’re getting a lunch,” Giusti said. “These are people who have the means to pay for hot lunch and are choosing not to and we need to figure out why.”
Superintendent of Schools Barry Ricci said he had explored the possibility of hiring a collection agency to pursue parents for lunch debt, but the amounts of debt had been too small.
“When we looked into it, most collection agencies don’t take small debt like this,” he said. “We’re talking 20 bucks, 50 bucks, $70, $110, plus some of them charge a fee for doing it. I didn’t like the approach. It was very aggressive.”
Ricci said the district was trying to handle the debt internally with mixed results.
“We’re not being aggressive. We’re being respectful,” he said. “After so many dollars, we make phone calls, send emails, letters go out. So we’re kind of doing our own collection process.”
The district’s lunch debt policy calls for email reminders to be sent to parents with outstanding balances of up to $19.99. When the debt exceeds $20, accounts are subject to closure, and the district takes additional measures when debts exceed $20.
According to the district's policy, “Students who owe between $20.00 and $74.99 will be referred to the director of administration and finance. A letter will be sent from the business office. Students who owe more than $75.00 will be referred to the superintendent. Telephone outreach with follow-up written correspondence will be made by a fiscal clerk under the direction of the director of administration and finance. When there is no response to the telephone outreach, debt collection activities may commence.”
Ricci said the committee would continue to mull the lunch debt issue.
“It’s going to be on the agenda again, because they really want to find a solution to this without shaming the kids. I’m going to work on this before the next meeting and try to come up with something for them,” he said.
The committee also discussed the persistent problem of excessive cellphone use in the schools. Hopkinton member Lisa Macaruso proposed jamming cellphones during class hours, but the Federal Communications Commission prohibits jamming.
“You can’t jam cellphones,” Ricci said. “The FCC does not allow that.”
Giusti said a way would have to be found to control cellphone use at school without banning the devices altogether.
“I think that we need to face the reality that cellphones are here to stay,” she said. “ We live in a culture where just about everybody uses one and we’re going to have to work on how we can responsibly reduce their use during class time.”
Giusti said the committee would need to study the cellphone issue in greater depth.
“There are some kids , just like there are some adults, who can be paying attention and who can be listening to music while they’re working,” she said. “It’s a multifaceted issue and we need to talk about it more. We can’t jam cellphones, so we’re going to have to look for another method.”
In other business, the committee also heard a proposal to combine the junior and senior prom.
“I was approached by some of the advisers about having a joint junior/senior prom,” Ricci said. “The major reason is to reduce costs, and a lot of our juniors go to the senior prom and a lot of our seniors go to the junior prom, so the thinking is if we do one joint prom we can do it for less money.”
Ricci said he had authorized a survey of students, to be administered before the end of the current school year, to solicit their input on a joint prom.