I just read an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about how the largest school district in the state of Minnesota is planning on hiring a collection agency to help them retrieve $160,000 (from families owing $100 or more) for unpaid school breakfasts and lunches.
If you think this district’s struggle is an isolated big-city issue, think again. The national School Nutrition Association indicated in its “State of School Nutrition report 2014” that over 70 percent of districts had unpaid meal debt in their school nutrition program at the end of the 2012-2013 school year (averaging about $2000 per district).
Not only is the problem widespread, it’s also growing. The Anoka-Hennepin School District, the one featured in the article, is concerned because there is debt accumulating in the middle schools at levels higher than currently seen for high school seniors who’ve had their entire school career to amass their debt. In the 2011-2012 to 2012-2013 school years, the districts meal debt increased 6 percent. Between 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years the debt skyrocketed 61 percent and increased again from the 2013-2014 school year to the 2014-2015 by 48 percent.
With increases like the ones seen above, it’s easy to see why school districts across the country feeling the pain of these (and other) unpaid student debts are done hitting their heads against the wall and are turning to the experts—debt collectors—for help.
The article explained that the Anoka-Hennepin school district doesn’t have a contract with a collection agency yet and said they will offer families a payment plan before sending them to collections. “There needs to be at least some good-faith effort,” said school board Chairman Tom Heidemann.
“If the case is you don’t even respond to us, we know that you’re not going to help out with the situation,” said Noah Atlas, the district’s child nutrition program director. “We don’t feel there’s any other recourse at this point.”
The thing is, the school district needs to understand whether it’s an ability to pay problem or a willingness to pay issue. Like health care providers and other businesses, they do not want to involve a collection agency if they don’t have to. If you owe an outstanding debt to your school district, ignoring pleas for payment will not make the debt go away and it may likely be sent to collections. Communication is key. If you are having financial difficulties know you’re not alone. I know it may be uncomfortable to make that initial contact, but most creditors once they realize you are making an effort to pay will be happy to work with you to set up a payment arrangement you both can agree upon. And it will feel great to have the debt taken care of instead of hanging over your head.
According to the Star Tribune article, there is no standardized way school districts handle debt from unpaid lunches and policies vary around the country. District officials at Anoka-Hennepin decided not to involve the kids. “We are trying to keep this adult-to-adult,” said Atlas. “We don’t turn students away from the meal.”
The Minnesota Department of Education wrote in a 2014 memo that price-reduced or paid meals must be available to eligible children if they have money in hand, but they also added that a school “may take legal action against a household which has not settled its food service debt.”
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