UNION, N.J. — The school district is facing a $270,000 deficit for unpaid lunches from last year, Board of Education members were told at their Nov. 19 meeting, and one official suggested hiring a collection agency to recover the funds.
“We’re shocked to hear $270,000. Is that correct?” board member Vito Nufrio said. “That number is alien to my ears.”
School business administrator Gregory Brennan, who made the revelation, said there has been communication with parents who owe money and that the process of correcting the issue will take time. He suggested that school administration and board members consider a collection agency.
The money is owed from when Aramark provided service to the school district. The BOE changed the district’s food provider to Pomptonian Food Services this year.
The issue came to light less than a month after the Cherry Hill School District in South Jersey gained national attention when it announced that it was $16,500 in debt and would limit students who were more than $20 in arrears to eating tuna fish. It revised that to banning students from some activities if they were more than $75 in debt.
According to Union BOE members, the main reason for debt is that the online platform where parents check what they owe for lunch, is not easily accessible; parents also claim that they are not being adequately notified.
According to BOE member Kim Ruiz, a parent at a previous meeting said she had tried to pay her fees, but was told that her account had been settled.
Board member Kalisha Morgan said changes need to be made to Genesis online platform, where parents and students check grades, to link it to the school lunch payment program.
“Most parents don’t want to check two systems. Can we link it to Genesis?” Morgan asked. “We can’t hold parents accountable for what they don’t know, so it’s our job to let them know that they owe these fines. If you’re saying that you never got a notice or someone never knows, then you cannot sit here and say that parents are not paying when we are not doing our job in notifying them of the bill.”
Schools Superintendent Gregory Tatum said that the lunch issue has been addressed with parents in the past, including through letters sent to parents, and is not new to the school district.
“It seems that nobody is doing anything about this issue. It has been addressed to parents,” he said. “We are working on a process right now that we were working on before. Our business administration, there’s been a transition. I don’t want this to be projected that nothing from our offices are being done because there has been communication with parents. There’s been letters that have been sent out. And the bottom line is that we recognize that there’s a problem, but it’s going to take a lot of time and effort to be able to get and start collecting money.”
Earlier in the meeting, Tatum said the issue of school lunch debt has spread across the state, and school officials have been informed that they cannot take lunch money from cafeteria fines to pay lunch debt. However, the district can take money from nearly any other source, he said. And it will accept payment from anyone who wants to clear their account.
“There was a meeting with the building administrators, and they stated that they do not deny any parents who want to pay their bill,” Tatum said. “There have been people who have been coming around through charities and paying off lunch accounts and debt. … If you owe a bill and you want to come in and pay, we will gladly take your money.”
Assistant Superintendent Gerry Benaquista, said that the only accounts that have been settled were from parents who filled out the documentation and qualified for a free lunch. “Nobody that didn’t qualify for free lunch, all those balances are still there,” he said.
Resident Suehay Monge suggested reducing the threshold of debt when parents need to be notified.
“I looked up the policy, and to be quite honest, the issue lies within the policy,” she said. “I think right now it’s $75 when they start to reach out to the parents. That is way too high. Way too high. Why are we waiting until the parents reach $75 to start calling then? If they’re not paying the $75, maybe $15, maybe $10.”
At the same meeting, the BOE also addressed the lingering issue of paraprofessionals. During the October meeting several parents and residents complained that an August agreement with the teachers union left the district woefully short of the classroom aides.
Benaquista updated that 19 — or 9 percent — of paraprofessional positions remain open, of 214 in the district. The staffing agency ESS, hired primarily to provide substitute teachers, has covered 56 of the 74 positions that were open at the beginning of the school year, after some employees quit or changed jobs.
Tatum noted that the number of available positions in the district was up significantly from last year’s number of 157. Ten paraprofessionals have moved into the preschool program and approximately 29 have resigned in the last year, he said.
“To make it very clear, the ESS contract is for substitutes, which have been helping to cover some of the para positions for us,” Tatum said. “Their main job really is to provide substitute teachers. That’s what they were hired to do.”
He said ESS staff still need to have the proper qualifications when they are hired by the school district.
“Right now, we have a posting that we are continually hiring,” Benaquista said. “Out of the 74 jobs that technically, over time, we will hire, ESS has been able to cover us. About 164 paraprofessionals are currently designated to special education.”