Credit limits suspended on school lunch bills

Credit limits suspended on school lunch bills

Policy shift comes after critics protest ‘lunch shaming’

PAWTUCKET – The School Committee last week repealed the Pawtucket School Department’s lunch policy, sending it to a policy subcommittee for review and revision.

The vote to repeal came during the school board’s May 23 meeting, after repeated shouting from opponents of so-called “lunch shaming” in Pawtucket schools. Opponents of the school district’s policy contended that students are routinely embarrassed when they’re forced to accept alternative lunches of cheese and bread when they fall behind on their payments for school lunches.

Critics grew irate when school board attorney Jon Anderson accused some of them of “Pinocchio talk” on the schools’ lunch program. They demanded an apology from Anderson, some using vulgarities to describe the attorney. Instead of apologizing, Anderson doubled down on his statements that critics are exaggerating the impact of the schools’ policies.

School officials again denied suggestions from critics that hot lunches are regularly taken away from students who aren’t up to date on their payments for lunches.

Anderson reminded School Committee members that they must have a policy on how they’re going to collect outstanding lunch bills in place by July 1. The current amount owed by local students is about $40,000.

Organizers behind an effort to end lunch shaming in Pawtucket slammed administrators for their policies on collecting lunch debts, some suggesting that the district is paying significant dollars for new staff members when they could just pay off the remaining amount owed instead.

Anderson noted that $40,000 equals about half of the cost for a reading teacher. He guaranteed that the amount next year will equal the cost of two reading teachers if school officials pay off all late bills.

Supt. Patti DiCenso last week also announced plans to pilot the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) in two district schools with the highest number of impoverished students, Cunningham Elementary and Baldwin Elementary, for the 2017-2018 school year. The CEP allows schools in high-poverty districts to serve lunch at no cost to all enrolled students.

Schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students participating in other assistance programs.

DiCenso said school leaders met with state education officials on benefits and concerns surrounding the potential impact of the policy on the district’s per-pupil funding from the state.

The CEP eliminates the “free and reduced lunch forms” process, but requires “household income survey forms” to be collected by all families who are not directly certified in the free or reduced lunch categories, said DiCenso.

The cost of not turning in the free and reduced lunch forms currently results in large unpaid lunch balances, now standing at $40,000, including carryover from the 2015-2016 school year.

For each household income survey form not turned in for the CEP, the cost is $3,067 in funding to the school district based on this year’s state funding formula, said DiCenso.

“At the two schools we are recommending to pilot, we would need to ensure the collection of approximately 315 survey forms (from those who) are not directly certified,” she said. “If 19 of our eligible or previous eligible (free or reduced lunch) students do not submit the income survey, this could impact our funding formula by $58,273.”

Providence has struggled with using CEP across that city, even though the city also has a high number of students receiving free and reduced price lunches, said DiCenso.

“Collecting forms from families without a direct certification is a challenge for the largest school district in the state, which is why they only have 14 of the 40 schools piloting the CEP,” she said. “Nine of their schools still have an alternate lunch program along with 22 districts that answered our survey request.”

DiCenso assured school board members that officials will continue to pursue the collection of forms as they do now with a dedicated staff member who monitors the forms, principals who send constant reminders in multiple languages both by mail and phone, reviews of lists with social workers, and home visits from staff who are fluent in multiple languages.

“Our principals, teachers and support staff have been extremely sensitive and supportive to families regarding alternative lunch service,” she said. “They have been champions to protect our children from feeling uncomfortable about receiving an alternate lunch while they continue to communicate with families to complete lunch forms for eligibility.”

Comments

I agree with Ms. DiCenso that teachers and support staff have been sensitive in dealing with the issue of lunch shaming our children. In fact, it was a former Pawtucket school lunch worker that brought this issue to the light of day! Kudos to her and all the other parents and staff that even under threat of being bullied continued to fight to have this horrible policy repealed.
It is the school committee that has been extremely insensitive to the issue of lunch shaming. They have denied it even exists several times. Looks like Pawtucket parents and students won this fight! Good for them!