Shawnee Mission lunch policy prompts $16,500 in unpaid bills. But many families can pay

Shawnee Mission to reconsider free lunch policy after unpaid balances soar to $16K

Unpaid lunch balances have risen to $16,500 since Shawnee Mission started guaranteeing students a full meal at school, even when their accounts are empty. Board members will reconsider the policy in April.
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Unpaid lunch balances have risen to $16,500 since Shawnee Mission started guaranteeing students a full meal at school, even when their accounts are empty. Board members will reconsider the policy in April.

Just four months into its new policy of guaranteeing students a full lunch when they have no money in their school accounts, Shawnee Mission has amassed a negative balance of $16,500.

That is more than three times as much as the district usually has in unpaid balances per year.

Board members signaled at a meeting Monday that the practice could go away if the district cannot find other ways to cover the balances.

“We agreed that it had to be cost-neutral, that we couldn’t go into debt with our lunch program,” said board member Laura Guy, who represents the West area.

While the policy was adopted as a way to help children on days they couldn’t afford a meal, it turns out that the majority of students with unpaid balances are from families who do not qualify for free or reduced lunch.

It’s mostly the students from “full-pay” families who have racked up more than $13,000 of the $16,500 in unpaid balances, said Food Services Director Nancy Coughenour. She said it’s possible that some of these families do qualify for free and reduced lunch, but they are not currently registered.

“We do know there is a number of families who are full-pay lunch who will remain full-pay lunch,” Superintendent Mike Fulton said. “That’s the group we are saying we really need you to come forward and pick up your negative balance.”

Last year, district leaders made an unprecedented decision to stop the practice of giving students cheese sandwiches and milk when they couldn’t pay for lunch, instead opting to provide a full lunch. Breakfast or lunch meals range from $1.40 to $2.80 for full-paying students depending on grade level.

Board members felt the substitute meal was inadequate and could impede learning, in addition to putting a spotlight on kids who couldn’t afford lunch that day.

“In my opinion one more toasted cheese sandwich is one too many,” Patty Mach, a Shawnee Mission school board member representing the Northwest area said at the time.

A certain amount of unpaid balances per year — roughly $4,500 — is normal, Coughenour said.

Sometimes it takes weeks for families who qualify for free and reduced lunch to file the right paperwork, or sometimes needy families don’t realize they qualify, like in some cases where a parent is furloughed. The district tries to cover unpaid balances of needy families with donations, or from the general fund if necessary.

In October, when the new policy was initiated, school officials admitted it would be difficult to predict how the food service department’s bottom line would be affected.

Coughenour said food service employees have striven to keep costs down, making both personal calls and robo-calls to remind parents accounts are low, trying to get families signed up for federally subsidized lunch more quickly and seeking donations.

Their success on all these fronts will determine the policy’s future. Already, a couple who has donated up to $23,000 to feed needy kids has informed the district that they are not sure they can continue to contribute because they don’t feel comfortable with the district’s current policy.

School board members are expected to review the policy in April.

“We had all the right reasons for doing this,” Guy said. “I want to encourage teachers and parents and the community to help us. We don’t want to have to reverse this decision in April but we have got to find a way to make this cost-neutral.”

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Katy Bergen covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.