standing Chariho High School

Chariho High School. Sun file photo

WOOD RIVER JCT. — Members of the Chariho School Committee adopted an amended policy Tuesday to address outstanding student lunch debt.

Public outrage over practices criticized as lunch-shaming has grown across the country, including in Rhode Island, where the Warwick school district recently backed down from a short-lived policy of substituting cold sandwich meals for students whose lunch debts exceed a certain amount.

Debt for student lunches in the Chariho school district is now approaching $19,000. The School Committee has continued its policy of not punishing students with unpaid lunch debt by serving them alternative meals or withholding privileges. Students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches are not affected by the lunch debt policy.

The proposed revisions to the lunch debt policy include giving parents or guardians the option of allowing the district access to a credit card should a student’s lunch debt exceed $20.

Another amendment stipulates that lunch debt must be paid before a student graduates or otherwise leaves the district. In cases where lunch debt is greater than $75, the school district will initiate debt collection procedures or go to small claims court to collect the debt. Parents and guardians can also sign a waiver opting out of the schools’ breakfast and hot lunch programs.

Richmond member Murat Dymov proposed an additional revision that would involve adding late fees to outstanding lunch bills.

“Why don’t we impose late fees as well, because I don’t see much of a consequence,” he said. “This procedure applies to people who are not subsidized for lunch or breakfast, so these are the people who are deemed to be able to pay and for one reason or another, do not pay, so I would personally suggest that after a month or something, that there is a late fee similar to any service where you have debt.”

Lisa Macaruso of Hopkinton said she would support late fees, which she said would be consistent with Superintendent of Schools Barry Ricci’s policy of not penalizing students.

“I can support that so long as, as Mr. Ricci has suggested here, that we continue  to make the parents, the adults, the responsible parties and not penalize our students by withholding any of the rights that are afforded to them through the educational process,” she said. 

Macaruso also suggested that the committee focus on ways to preempt the accumulation of lunch debt.

“The greater issue here is the format in which we are unrolling the lunch debt,” she said. “We are providing an opportunity for debt to be created where I think it doesn’t need to be created in the first place … We could do better as adults and as policymakers to not set up these circumstances for students to be in debt to begin with.”

A credit card provided and authorized at the time of registration, Macaruso said, could be charged when a student’s debt remained unpaid for a certain period.

Ricci responded that he had consulted with Chariho attorney Jon Anderson and had been told that the district could not mandate a credit card.

The committee unanimously approved the revised lunch debt policy, including Dymov’s proposal to charge monthly late fees for debts greater than $75. The new policy will take effect in June.

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