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Natchez-Adams School District hungry to pay school lunches bill

NATCHEZ — With more than $100,000 in school lunch money owed to the state, the Natchez-Adams County School District is asking parents to pay up.

Superintendent Frederick Hill said the district was informed by an auditor from the Child Nutrition Office of the Mississippi Office of Healthy Schools that the school district owes the office a little more than $100,000 for school lunches.

That debt has accumulated over the past year and a half, Hill said, as a result of schools allowing students to charge lunches, and those bills never being paid by parents.

Students will no longer be allowed to charge lunches, Hill said.

“We must pay it back,” Hill said. “We’ll first look for parents to pay back charges, then we’ll have to look within our existing budget and cut out something and pay back (the money owed).”

The district actually owes the state more money than the approximately $100,000 bill, Hill said, because the problem originated as early as 2004.

“We weren’t given that (full amount as a bill),” he said. “They’re just focused on getting the balance from the last year and a half.”

As of last year, Hill said, approximately 90 percent of district students were participating in the free and reduced-price lunch program. That means the 10 percent of remaining students have charged their lunches.

“(The 90 percent) number is probably lower because not all of the students that were on free and reduced lunches submitted their forms (this year),” Hill said.

And that is part of the problem, Hill said. Only parents can fill out the forms by law, Hill said, and students who are used to getting free lunches could have been charging lunches because their parents never turned in their forms.

Hill said he understands that some parents may have been confused by how the situation was communicated to parents because a letter was sent out that said students could not eat if they have a past due balance.

That is not the case, Hill said.

Parents will not have to immediately pay off their entire balance for their child to continue eating in the cafeteria, Hill said, but the students will have to bring their lunch money every day to eat.

Hill said by law school staff is not allowed for health reasons to take a tray from a child who has already touched it. At Morgantown Middle, a student that knowingly touches a tray without the intention of paying for the lunch will now be subject to disciplinary action.

Hill said he is not so much concerned about the disciplinary action, because each student will be given due diligence as with any other disciplinary problem, as he is concerned about students being embarrassed in the lunch line.

“The school has elected to do that,” Hill said. “As a superintendent, I will be interjecting and making sure we have a process in place so that the cafeteria folks know that (a student) cannot afford a lunch, and if they forgot their money, they will be allowed to call home to see if they can get it.

“I’m not saying that a child wouldn’t go without eating, but we will work them.”

Parent liaisons at each school, Hill said, have been contacting parents for months about past-due balances.

“Notices have been going out since October,” he said. “The parent liaisons at every building have been logging times and dates they have been calling parents about past-due balances and have even gone so far as to send out free and reduced lunch forms.”

The state has not given the district a deadline to pay back the $100,000, but Hill said the state is willing to work out a payment plan with the district.