Fort Bend ISD tightens school lunch policy

Fort Bend ISD is ramping up efforts to collect overdue balances owed by parents for student meals. Beginning this month, the district is giving out alternative meals to students with overdue balances of at least $35, district officials said.

Alternative meals consist of cereal and milk for breakfast, and a cheese sandwich and milk for lunch, according a district letter sent to families April 26 announcing the change.

Steven Bassett, FBISD chief financial officer, said the decision was made to implement the policy immediately—rather than wait until the start of the 2016-17 school year—in order to collect as many overdue fees as possible.

“The reason why is because the numbers—the amount of money that we were going to have to write off and have the general fund absorb—was too high,” he said. “We wanted to try to recover as much as we can this year and get started off on the right foot next year.”

School lunches are part of the district’s child nutrition department, which is supported by federal dollars and meal payments. Meals for students in the free and reduced lunch program are subsidized by these payments and the district is partially reimbursed per free and reduced meal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At the time of the policy change, Bassett said district families had accumulated more than $400,000 in overdue meal balances—close to the cost of hiring seven teachers. He said the district has always had a policy for collecting overdue balances but until now, it was not strongly enforced.

“Letters have been going out quarterly [to families] with what their balances are,” he said. “[The] thing is, people were just ignoring them because there was no consequence.”

Those families with overdue balances may have their debt sent to a collection agency, an option Bassett said the district approved in July but is trying to avoid. He could not determine whether the overdue balances were more prevalent at the elementary or secondary school levels, although he said staff could not hold younger students as accountable as high school students.

“When we started on the alternative meals—there were very few [alternative] meals that were given out at the high schools,” he said. “Those kids figure it out.”

Gail Stotler, FBISD director of child nutrition, said families can pay balances either by credit card through the school district’s website, by money order, check or cash brought to the school cafeteria manager. Payment plans are also available on a case-by-case basis.

Bassett said FBISD looked at other school districts with similar policies before implementing its own. Families who struggle to pay overdue balances should consider signing up for the free and reduced lunch program, he said.

“It’s really up to the administration and the cafeteria staff to be calling these families and make sure their eligible to apply for the free and reduced lunch program so [that] it doesn’t become a problem—a bigger problem,” he said.