FARGO — Families in the Fargo Public Schools will no longer have to worry about school lunch debt being turned over to private collection agencies.
The change was made in a revised administrative policy by Superintendent Rupak Gandhi, who for several months said he supported such a move. The Fargo School Board gave its blessing to Gandhi's ability to change the policy at its meeting in late January.
Gandhi told The Forum Tuesday, Feb. 11, that the collection agency rule was used only once in the past two years. Still, the possibility of families facing collection agencies over school lunch debt turned into a hot button issue for many city residents.
Nationally, school district policies have varied greatly with "shaming" seen elsewhere in some schools where students with unpaid accounts are left without a hot meal. In other instances, students have been barred from extracurricular activities.
The issue came to the forefront in Fargo last year when Jason Boynton, a math professor at North Dakota State University and a member of a local hip-hop band, hosted a charity concert called Lunch Aid in September, raising enough money to pay off nearly $20,000 in student lunch debt. Then at Christmastime, an anonymous donor paid off another $28,672 in debt.
Boynton said he was "very happy" about the revised policy. He said he hopes other districts in North Dakota will also reform their policies. He said a charity show in Minot is being considered in hopes of policy changes there, and plans are in the works for another Fargo show in mid-October.
He said most school lunch debt "isn't the family's fault." Although free and reduced cost meals are available to students, he said, in some instances their families make more than the amount to qualify and "fall through the cracks."
Some residents have been pushing to use North Dakota's oil tax revenue Legacy Fund to help pay for school lunches or even a statewide ballot measure to provide enough state funding to make sure all students receive hot meals.
In a statement released by the ACLU of North Dakota after the Fargo decision, advocacy director Dane DeKrey said the policy change was a "positive step for ensuring our kids have the best possible learning environment."
"U.S. policy too often punishes and criminalizes people struggling with poverty, even inside school buildings where children are supposed to be nurtured and kept safe," DeKrey said. "Soliciting donations to cover school lunch debt isn't exactly a sustainable solution."
Although school lunch debt in Fargo will no longer be turned over to collection agencies, the revised policy still calls for measures to be taken when a student's lunch balance reaches a negative amount. Emails and phone calls will be made, and families may have to meet with a school official.
If the debt exceeds $30, a letter is sent to the household with an application for free or reduced cost meals and notification that the debt will be routed to the school district's business office for collection.
However, the policy states that "the district will consider individual circumstances and will work with households to establish a plan for repayment."