The Manteca Unified general fund has taken a $121,000 hit from a federal mandate that requires school districts to allow students to charge lunches if they don’t have the money to pay for a meal.
That is the amount the district has been unable to collect so far from the 2016-2017 school year — the first time the mandated charge program was required. The district ended last school year with $370,000 owed for meals. By the start of the current school year $204,000 had not been collected.
“What isn’t collected has to come out of the general fund,” District Superintendent Jason Messer noted.
The general fund consists of unrestricted revenue that covers the cost of regular classroom teachers, support staff, and materials. In terms of beginning teacher salaries and benefits, the $121,000 represents the equivalent of almost two positions.
With more than half of the current school year completed, outstanding balances for charged lunches are at $32,500.
Nutritional Education Services are spending more than 40 hours a week working to collect outstanding debt.
School districts have been helped by improvements in the direct certification process for free and reduce meals that have allowed 3,786 more children to receive meal benefits without needing to complete meal applications. They are from families that have qualified and are receiving assistance such as Medi-Cal.
In addition, the district reviews households to determine if other children in a household qualify as well. Typically qualified families will have elementary age students enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program but will not have high school added students enrolled.
Until August of 2016, if a student didn’t quality for reduced or free meals and lacked the means to pay for lunch they received peanut butter and crackers along with a trip to the garden bar. Most other districts across the country served either a cheese or peanut butter sandwich. That all changed when the federal government said all students had to be served the same meal to avoid “shaming.” The bottom line: Districts like Manteca Unified had no choice but to accept charges.
Families with students who owe the money may find out the hard way that not settling their debt could cost them. The district plans to exercise legal options such as barring participation in activities that are deemed optional under state law such as after school sports. Ultimately, if the debt isn’t paid by the end of their senior year the district may bar them from participating in graduation ceremonies just as with any other outstanding debt such as lost textbooks.
In the initial year of being mandated to accept charges, some students “gamed” the system by saying they had no money, get the peanut butter and crackers as well as garden bar, and then pocket the money.
Changes at the state level may further help impacted districts. One way is through Senate Bill 138 that provides state funding for universal free meal service at school campuses with a high poverty rate.
Parents are also reminded they can opt out of the charge policy by contacting Nutritional Education. They are also reminded they are responsible for completing anew meal application at the beginning of each school year.
Under the current Manteca Unified policy addressing student lunch charges:
*Charges are not allowed at the high school.
*Parents/guardians have the ability to opt out making their child ineligible for charging meals.
*Payments are accepted through cash in line; payment on student accounts through cash, checks or online (PayPams); or credit card.
*Payment arrangements may be made through Nutritional Education.
Parents are being notified of debt they owe via letters mailed weekly on pink paper stuffed in an envelope marked urgent, phone calls, and direct contact
High school lunches jumped 50 cents this year to $2.75 while elementary lunches are up 25 cents to $2.25. Other prices are $1.25 for elementary breakfast (students at campuses that are Breakfast-in-Classroom sits are not charged for breakfast), $1.50 for high school breakfast, $3 for adult breakfast, $4.50 for an adult lunch, $3.50 for a sibling lunch, $1.25 for water (schools do have drinking water faucets) , and 50 cents for milk.
During the 2016-2017 school year Manteca Unified served 4,955,736 meals including 2,228,367 breakfasts, 2,382,894 lunches, 47,766 snacks, 152,587 suppers, and 89,742 summer meals. On an average school day — excluding summer meals — the district serves 27,033 meals. Overall enrollment is just under 24,000.
At the end of last school year, 59.5 percent of all students qualified for reduced and free lunches. That’s down from more than 62 percent several years ago.
A sliding scale based on household size is used to determine eligibility,
To qualify for free lunches a two member household can’t make more than $21,112 a year, a three member household more than $26,546, a four member household more than $31,980, a five member household more than $37,414, a six member household more than $42,848, a seven member household more than $48,282, and an eight member household more than $53,716. You add $5,434 for each additional family member.
To qualify for reduced price a two member household can’t make more than $30,044 a year, a three member household more than $37,777, a four member household more than $45,510, a five member household more than $53,243, a six member household more than $60,976, a seven member household more than $68,709, and an eight member household more than $76,442. You add $7,733 for each additional family member.
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