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Cheese sandwiches may not be best solution but is solving past due bills

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Over $80,000 in past due lunch bills led school officials to change policy

By Thomas Barr

 SHEPHERDSVILLE - Sandy Simmons couldn’t help but get emotional when talking to members of the Bullitt County School Board.

She was at Brooks Elementary to have lunch with her son and she saw a little girl in front of her in the cafeteria line.

But when the girl got to the cashier, the lunch lady took the lunch and announced that she needed a cheese sandwich for the youngster.

“Do something different,” said Simmons. “Don’t tell our kids we can’t feed them.”

She was upset with the humiliation caused to students who have overextended their charge limits and are served an alternative lunch - a cheese sandwich.

However, the recent change in policy comes after years of fighting to look for solutions for past due lunch charges, which amounted to over $80,000 at the beginning of the school year.

Simmons said she understood the policy; however, there must be a better way to notify parents and hold them accountable, not the students.

Her son was also a recipient of a cheese sandwich earlier this year. She filled out an application for free and reduced lunches but hadn’t received any notification from the staff. In fact, as of Tuesday’s meeting, she still hadn’t heard anything from the school.

She wondered what kind of message it was sending when the students had already gotten their food and then had to watch it being thrown away while they received a cheese sandwich.

Cindy Kleinhelter, director of food services, said she had gotten a few calls about the alternative meals. And she agreed to listen to any suggestions.

However, when parents continue to not pay their charge accounts off, the district has to do something.

She didn’t want any student to go through a humiliating, horrible experience of having their meal thrown out due to the inability to pay. At the same time, Kleinhelter said there must be a way to provide food to the students and still get money from the parents.

The district has a new on-line payment system - www.mySchoolBucks.com - and Kleinhelter said it has been a very popular way to put money into a student’s account. Parents can go in at any time and see the child’s balance and what they are eating at school.

The program is set up to send e-mail alerts when lunch accounts are getting low and she believes this option will only grow.

(She outlined the procedures in an Aug. 8, 2011, article in The Pioneer News.)

At the elementary level, students are allowed to charge up to five meals before the alternative meal is provided. At the middle school level, charges can reach three times and an alternative meal is offered on five occasions.

At the high school level, there is no charging of meals but up to five alternative meals are allowed each year.

“We will never deny a child a meal,” said Kleinhelter.

What she has seen since the first of the school year is a drop in the amount of past due accounts and some parents have arranged payment schedules to pay off the debt.

In looking at other comparable school districts, it was rare to find any that came close to Bullitt County’s figure of over $80,000. Kleinhelter said it is time the parents take responsibility to feed their children.

If a child receives a couple of alternative meals, Kleinhelter is notified by the cafeteria staff and she calls the parents or guardians. 

“I don’t like it personally but it is working,” Kleinhelter said of the program, which actually didn’t change for the middle and high schools.

One issue addressed by several parents this year has been the free and reduced meal application process. Kleinhelter said for new applicants, it is time consuming and there is a turnaround time before the application is approved and the parents notified. She is looking to streamline that and maybe place the application process on-line.

Also, if parents don’t fill out all the needed information, including income, that delays the process.