Southwest Licking Superintendent Robert Jennell on Nov. 15 presented the school board with a real meat-and-potatoes issue with no easy answer.
Jennell said Director of Food Services Ginger Parsons informed him that as of the end of the last school year, the district had $3,000 in unpaid lunch charges from students and staff.
At the end of October, that total had reached $8,000.
"Looking at the number of unpaid charges that are accumulating, there's going to be a substantial amount of money that would need to be reimbursed by the food services (department), which may not be in their budget," Jennell said.
He said the district's food services department has to sustain itself financially and he understands Parsons' concern.
Currently, he said, all students are allowed to charge three meals, with payment to be collected at a later time after their individual lunch accounts are empty.
While the school board made no changes to this policy Nov. 15, Parsons suggested that elementary students be limited to one overcharge and middle and high school students receive none to stop the overcharges from accumulating.
Board members generally did not approve of Parson's suggested plan, but agreed that further discussion is necessary.
Jennell emphasized he only was bringing attention to the problem to seek the board's opinions on solutions.
"This type of issue can become a little time bomb if we take an incorrect position," he said.
"I can appreciate being $8,000 over," board Vice President Cindy Zaino said.
But, she said, she would not approve of dropping from three permitted overcharges to one or none.
"I don't like that idea, as a parent especially," she said.
Part of the proposed policy was to provide children who are overcharged with a cheese sandwich and orange juice for lunch until their accounts are balanced, which also didn't meet with the board's approval.
"I don't know if that's the way we should treat children and families," Zaino said.
Zaino suggested spending more time investigating how other districts handle the issue. She also wondered if parents could receive a courtesy call when their children's accounts fall to $5 or less.
"I completely agree," board member Debra Moore said.
Moore said she would be interested to see how much effort is being placed into collecting overcharges, "before we say, 'Here's your cheese sandwich, now enjoy it.' "
"That's so embarrassing for a child," Zaino said.
She said she understands the food services department has to sustain itself and she can see all sides of the issue.
"If it was $3,000 last year, why is it $8,000 now?" she asked.
Zaino also suggested the large debt could be a symptom of other issues.
"Food is important, and making sure our kids aren't embarrassed," she said. "Lunch money is a parent issue, not a child issue, especially in those younger years."
Jennell said staff members are contributing to the overcharges, as well.
"I like the idea of no adults charging meals," board President Don Huber said. "They can't do it outside of a school setting, why inside of a school setting?"
Huber said more conversation is necessary before any conclusions are reached.
However, he said $8,000, "even though I know it will be collected, seems unacceptable to me. I understand why (Parsons) is concerned."