The Saratoga Springs City School District has adopted a new school lunch policy after years of forgiving the debts of students who charged their lunches.
The change was instituted Monday, Feb. 4. According to Margaret Sullivan, the director of the lunch program at Saratoga schools, the district was assuming $5,000 worth of debts each year, with some families owing more than $400, all of which the school has to repay to the federal school lunch program.
“Students were allowed to charge meals, and it was just becoming excessive,” said Sullivan. “While we tried to recoup the funds, it wasn’t always possible and schools were on the line to pay the remainder of the charges that weren’t paid back. It just became a burden to the school.”
Under the new policy, high school students will no longer be allowed to charge lunches and elementary and middle school will only be allowed to charge lunches three times a week. Sullivan said the transition was smooth, with only one parent calling to complain. Sullivan was not sure if there would be any impact on the number of meals served.
“It’s possible that it may reduce the amount of meals that are served, but we don’t know that yet,” she said.
The district serves around 2,500 meals a day to a student population of approximately 6,500.
The policy change did not have to be approved by the school board because it was a regulation change only. District Assistant Superintendent Doug Silvernell said most area school districts have a similar policy. He explained that the problem in the Saratoga district was that there was no limit on charges.
“We had to put a limit on that. School districts aren’t collection agencies so it’s very difficult for us to get that money back,” he said.
Silvernell said if the charges aren’t paid back by the families, the school is responsible to pay back the money.
“We try to avoid that,” he said. “What’s happened in the past is the money has not been recovered and it runs into thousands of dollars.”
Silvernell said the decision on the policy change was made in part because Saratoga Springs is losing state aid.
“While everyone around us is gaining state aid, we’re losing state aid,” he said. “When we’re losing state aid and everyone else is gaining, we have to look at everything to try and make sure we tighten up the budget.”
Silvernell was quick to point out that even though high school students were not allowed to charge meals, no student will go hungry if they forget money for lunch. He said a system was in place to serve some sort of sandwich and fruit or granola bars.
“We don’t want anyone to go hungry,” he said. “You can’t learn on an empty stomach.”
Silvernell said families are allowed to set up debit accounts for school lunches through the online PayPAMS website. Saratoga uses it for its student debit account system.
“If I wanted to, at the beginning of the school year I could put $500 on my kid’s account and be set for the whole year,” he said.
Silvernell said most school districts have online payment systems now. Both Sullivan and Silvernell are optimistic that the new policy will be met with acceptance.