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Lunch debt persists for Wellesley public schools

Posted by Leslie Anderson  January 11, 2012 08:03 AM

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Wellesley Superintendent Bella Wong said at a School Committee meeting last night that the district is still owed $36,919 of the $169,000 outstanding school lunch debt discovered last spring, and suggested the board formally write off $6,784 of it.

The debt has been an issue since it was revealed last year that the business office had failed to correctly bill parents for food their children were eating. An audit triggered by the discovery revealed sloppy accounting practices in the business office. No misappropriation was uncovered.

The debt that Wong suggested writing off was incurred by two groups: families that have left Wellesley and who cannot be located, and families who have recently qualified for free or reduced lunches. The School Committee will not vote on her recommendation until its next meeting on Jan. 24.

In a breakdown of the rest of the debt, Wong said that $6,223 belongs to families who are working with the district to pay the money back on payment plans; $342.30 belongs to families who owe less than $100 each; and the remaining $23,569.05 belongs to just 25 families who each owe more than $100 dollars – or an average of a little more than $942 per family.

Those 25 families, said School Committee member KC Kato, have not answered any correspondence sent by the school.

“This number has been a pretty hard nut for us to crack,” said chairwoman Suzy Littlefield. “It hasn’t come down much.”

Wong suggested that the School Committee consider four possible next steps in dealing with the remaining outstanding debt.

First, she said, those families with outstanding debt cannot buy school lunch. “That is an inconvenience to those families,” she said.

Wong suggested looking at the possibility of pursuing small claims filings.

She also said that other towns had responded to outstanding debts of this nature by curbing student access to voluntary activities, and working with the town to limit access for discretionary permits.

The board took no action last night.

“It’s about having the parents pay and not punishing the children,” said Kato.

Wong also revealed that new lunch debt is being accumulated this year, despite the School Committee’s vote last June for a new lunch policy wherein lunch wouldn’t be sold to a student unless they had credit on their account.

The new debt stands at about $2,200, she said.

The debt has been accumulated, she said, because the current school policy is that if a student started the year with a positive account and runs it down, the school offers five alternate lunches before curtailing lunch for that student altogether. There is a charge for each alternate lunch provided, she said.

“You have the potential for incurring debt,” she said.

The school lunch debt issue has dogged the district, which has come under withering scrutiny over the past year. Wong resigned on Nov. 10 citing “ongoing public concern over school operational protocols” that had undermined her capacity to advocate for the district. Business manager Ruth Quinn Berdell went on voluntary paid administrative leave less than two weeks later.

Evan Allen can be reached at evannn524@gmail.com.

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