EDITORIAL: School lunches costing Washoe County School District tens of thousand of dollars

They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But “they” have apparently never been to Reno.

The Reno Gazette-Journal reported last week that the Washoe County School District is out almost $90,000 this school year thanks to families who haven’t paid for school meals. The figure has doubled every year since 2015, according to the paper, and exceeds the $66,000 incurred during the entire 2016-17 school year.

“The current policy,” the Gazette-Journal explains, “established by the school board last May, allows elementary school students to run up unlimited debt and has zero consequences for parents who don’t pay.”

What could possibly go wrong?

It’s important to note that those stiffing the Washoe district aren’t poor students or their parents. “We’re not talking about the low-income kids who can’t afford a meal,” said Pete Etchart, the district’s chief operations officer. The district already offers free or reduced-price meals to about 44 percent of its 64,000 students who qualify for such subsidies. Instead, the paper reports, district officials have found that “the majority of the ballooning debt is being caused by families that, at least on paper, should be able to afford a school meal.”

One anonymous comment from a school administrator, included in an audit report on the issue, assessed the situation: “Most of my parents can pay their balances, however, when they read in the paper that the district covers whatever is owed at the end of the year … the parents have no reason to follow through and pay.” The unnamed administrator when on to note that, “A few of our worst offenders are actually parents that are employees of our district. They know they can get away without paying.”

What a fine example they set for the children!

Despite the proliferation of meal scofflaws, district officials remain reticent about taking steps to improve the situation, worried that any attempt to collect the money might embarrass families facing hardship. “It’s going to be a difficult conversation … there’s no easy answer here,” Mr. Etchart told the Gazette-Journal.

The district hopes to have a new school lunch payment policy in place for the 2018-19 calendar. One proposal being floated would send any debt to a collection agency if parents remain unresponsive through six district attempts to contact them regarding accounts in arrears. That seems awfully timid, but at least it’s a start.

“When you create one policy that’s going after parents who have every ability to pay, and you’re using collections there, you can also — with that same broadsword — hurt parents who are truly struggling,” cautioned Mr. Etchart.

Perhaps. But that’s the same well-intentioned yet fainthearted approach that produced the Washoe County School District’s predicament in the first place.

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