UNION, NJ – The issue of outstanding lunch accounts in the amount of $300,000 was discussed at the Nov. 19 Board of Education meeting.
Board Business Administrator Manuel Vieira said there is an outstanding balance of $270,000 from the 2018-2019 school year. The outstanding balance for the current school year, September alone, totals almost $30,000.
The issue was raised in response to a question at the last Board meeting from a parent who had difficulty paying a student’s outstanding lunch account. Superintendent Gregory Tatum said building administrators stated, “they do not deny any parents who want to pay their bill. They are accepting money and certainly they are able to pay.”
Assistant Superintendent Gerry Benequista said the only accounts settled were for families who filled out the proper documentation and fit the requirements for free lunch. “Nobody that didn’t qualify for free lunch… all those balances are still there.” He said he heard from one principal who knew of a parent who filled out the documentation and “the balance was removed based on now them qualifying for free lunch.”
Regarding the process to collect the outstanding balances, Tatum said, “we’ve been talking about trying to take some action to utilize some services to collect the money, but we don’t have a full-fledged game plan.” Tatum said Business Administrator Greg Brennen, who left the district in October, was working on a process over the summer. “I don’t know where we left off with that.”
Vieira added, however, “we do have a process in place to reach out to the parents for the unpaid meals. As far as the prior year unpaid meals, we’d have to have a discussion whether we’d want to place these accounts with a collection agency.” Vieira said the process for reaching out to parents regarding outstanding balances began in the middle of the last school year.
Board member Sherry Higgins said she did not know until a few days before graduation that she (on behalf of her daughter who was a senior last year) owed money to the cafeteria. “It was a bit of a hurdle to find out what was owed and how to pay it. No one reached out to me; I didn’t get an email.”
“We can’t hold parents accountable for what they don’t know,” said Board member Kalisha Harris-Morgan. “So, it’s our job to ensure that they know they owe these fines. If you tell them, and they don’t pay, then we can proceed. But if you’re saying you never got a notice, then we cannot sit here and say parents are not paying when we are not doing our job in notifying them.”
Tatum said a letter to parents explaining the process (of payment) was sent in September. “We have to make something clear,” he said. “It seems like no body’s addressed the issue. It has been addressed.”
Tatum continued, “we are working on a process right now. We were working on it before the transition in the business administration, but we are working on this issue. I don’t want it to be projected that nothing from our offices is being done because there has been communication with parents, there’s been letters that have been sent out.”
“We may have a policy, but we must enforce the policy,” said Harris-Morgan.
Tatum said the district has a policy, but must have the manpower and personnel to enforce the policy. “When we recognize those instances where there is a problem, it’s going to take a lot of time and effort to be able to get and start collecting money,” he added. “That’s why we were seeking a professional agency at one point.”
"We are looking to do everything we can to try to recover as much of the funds as possible," said Tatum. "Two-hundred and seventy thousand dollars is a lot of money."
“This is not a new topic; we dealt with this before,” said Board member Vito Nufrio. “We were given some assurance that all past debts were going to be addressed. Obviously, they were not.” Nufrio said previous Business Administrator Brennen assured the board that AraMark had been joined in the task of collecting these funds. “Unless my memory serves me wrong, it was at least two and a half years ago.”
Tatum said the district is researching the possibility of linking lunch accounts to Genesis (the parent portal) to make it easier for parents to become aware of monies owed.