NORTH ADAMS -- The North Adams School Committee believes it has found a way to collect more than $20,000 in delinquent meal accounts without bringing children into the equation.
Beginning in September, the district will enact a no-credit meal policy, allowing the district to seek payments from parents and at the same time provide lunches to children with negative account balances without stigmatizing them socially.
Food Services Director Cory Nicholas said the policy will provide students with insufficient account funds with the alternative breakfast or lunch offering, which is available daily to any student who doesn't want the daily entree. The alternative offerings are of the same nutritional quality but replace the daily entree with a "commodity" item -- which costs the district less. Examples provided included: Cereal with toast, fruit of the day and milk for breakfast, and a ham or turkey sandwich with fruit, the vegetable of the day and milk for lunch.
"We'll still charge the student's account the full lunch price, but the actual cost to us will be 20 to 30 percent less," Nicholas said. "We have children who choose the alternative lunch every day because they don't like that day's offering."
Superintendent James E. Montepare said the district has taken on another $4,000 in delinquent meal account debt since its May meeting, when the total owed to the district was $20,460.47
"We have prioritized the accounts we need to go after and have made phone calls and started taking action," he said, noting that several accounts have been marked for small claims court action.
School Committee member Larry Taft said that he wanted to make sure that a child with insufficient funds would be identified before going through the lunch line -- a step that could require cash registers to be moved to the start of the line as opposed to the end.
"I just want to ensure no child is being embarrassed by this," he said.
Mayor Richard J. Alcombright, who is also chairman of the committee, stressed that children who receive free or reduced lunch are not affected by the policy and that delinquent accounts belong to families outside that realm.
"I heard from three parents in the last month, all of whom admitted they were guilty of having delinquent accounts, mainly because of their hectic schedules and forgetfulness," he said. "They pay when they get a call or letter. All three expressed that it would be easier if they could put money into their children's accounts online and if they could see their account balances online too."
Nicholas said it is possible for parents to make account deposits online and that he is currently checking into online programs that allow parents to see their children's accounts.
Committee member Mark Moulton, the only vote cast against the policy, said he still had problems with providing alternative or "commodity" lunches to children.
"I know we need a plan. I know something has to be done. I don't know what it is," he said. "I don't see how this will encourage parents to pay their bills."
Taft said the district will still "have bad debt" but the policy allows for the "bad debt to cost the district less" and still pursue payment.
"It's a difficult situation, but you have to separate the two things," he said. "We can't stop feeding the child. The win is that the entree we're giving them is nutritionally the same, but they will cost us less to provide."
Montepare added that when researching the policy, neighboring school districts with similar "no-credit" policies said they saw a dramatic change in delinquent accounts after the policies were enacted.
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In other business
n The school committee approved the Drury High School summer school program, which will run from July 1 to 29, from 8 to 10 a.m. The cost per course is $100 for Drury students and $125 for non-Drury students. Courses will be offered in English, math, social studies and science for grades 9 to 12.
n The committee also approved the Conte School renovation project, including schematic design and construction plans, while also authorizing Alcombright, as chairman, to make binding decisions and act as signatory on its behalf.
Alcombright assured the committee members that all decisions made would be vetted by the School Building Committee and communicated to them on a regular basis.
n Authorization was also granted to Montepare to negotiate a lease for the district's new administrative offices. Montepare said he is currently negotiating with a local landlord for 9,000-square-feet of downtown office space. He declined to publicly name the space, as negotiations are ongoing, but said the lease agreement has a potential savings of $40,000 annually when compared to costs associated with the two office spaces it will replace.
n Moulton thanked Brayton Elementary School Principal Sarah Madden for her dedication and years of service. Madden, who became principal of the elementary school in 2010, has taken a position with the Northampton Public Schools as principal of R. K. Finn Ryan Road School. She begins her new position July 1.