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Collections idea for meal debt gets cool reception from Moorhead schools

The proposed change was part of an overhaul of the district's policies concerning meals and meal debt that was brought to the board by the district's administration for a first reading Monday night.

Serving lunch
Moorhead school officials are debating whether use of collection services should be an option for school meal debt.
File photo.
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MOORHEAD — A proposed policy change that would allow school meal debt to be sent to collections received a cool reception from Moorhead School Board members on Monday, Sept. 26.

The proposed change was part of an overhaul of the district's policies concerning meals and meal debt that was brought to the board by the district's administration for a first reading Monday night.

Policy changes would not become effective until a second reading of the proposed changes, which was expected at the board's next meeting.

One aspect of the proposed changes stated that after reasonable efforts have first been made by school officials to collect delinquent school meal debt, the district "may use any legal methods permitted by law" to collect the unpaid debt.

A number of board members said they felt uncomfortable with that language, given the many economic pressures families face.

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Superintendent Brandon Lunak said he didn't like the language either, but said given the rules the district must operate under, the only option to cover the shortfalls of nonpayment is to transfer dollars from the district's general fund, which he said could create budgetary issues down the road.

Given the reception the proposed change received Monday, Lunak said the language in question could be stricken from the package of proposed policy changes prior to the next meeting, when issue could be revisited.

Other proposed policy changes that were not stricken Monday include language that aims to ensure that students receive nutritious meals without the fear of "meal shaming" or other form of stigmatization if they cannot afford to pay.

Under the district's current policy, students who do not have sufficient funds are not allowed to charge meals until additional money is deposited in the student's account.

That wording is deleted under the policy change that received first reading Monday night.

It is replaced with wording that states that students who are eligible for free and reduced meals always must be served a reimbursable meal, even if the student has an outstanding debt.

Other policy wording that received a first reading Monday states that after a student has been served a meal, the food may not be taken away by a cashier or other official, even if the student has an outstanding meal payment debt.

Existing policy which would not be changed by any of the language that received a first reading Monday ensures that any reminders sent to families that a meal debt exists will not demean or stigmatize any student.

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Proposed policy changes would reinforce that existing language, stating that reminders to families will specifically not include: dumping meals; withdrawing meals that have been served, or announcing or listing a student's name publicly.

Brenda Richman, executive director of community engagement and public relations for Moorhead Area Public Schools, said Monday night that the district makes every effort to work with families to support educational benefits paperwork completion when possible and work out reasonable payment plans when needed.

Richman said collection agencies or additional measures have not been utilized since a policy change was made in December of 2019.

Lunak said rule changes since the previous policy change that guide how the district can or cannot transfer dollars between funds prompted changes regarding student meal debt.

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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