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Schools docked for lunch money

There's more bad news in store for the city's principals. Nearly 500 schools will have their 2010-2011 budgets docked the amount of money owed by families for unpaid school lunches.

Principals of schools with outstanding lunch fees first learned of the measure in a May 13 letter from Kathleen Grimm, deputy chancellor of operations at the Department of Education. Grimm cited Chancellor's Regulation A-815, which gives principals the responsibility for ensuring that fees are collected for all students not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. In a time of "significant fiscal challenges....uncollected fees have created a very significant budget gap for the Department," Grimm writes. Now the DOE expects the schools to pay, in an effort "to minimize the impact of cuts to our classrooms."

Between 2004 to 2009, the DOE absorbed $35 million in losses because of uncollected lunch money, according to Department spokesperson Marge Feinberg. Last year, the DOE lost $7 million and is projecting a loss between $6-7 million for the 2009-2010 school year. "In the past, the Department would cover the cost," she said, "but we cannot absorb the cost any more. We have let [uncollected lunch fees ] slide too long."

Last year, 73% of the city's students were eligible for free lunch or reduced-price lunch, which costs 25 cents. The remainder of students must pay $1.50 for each lunch. Feinberg emphasized that the price is lower than other school districts such as Buffalo or Boston where students pay between $2.25 or $2.50.

The DOE has been reminding principals since November to collect the lunch money, Feinberg said. But principals claim that's easier said than done.

"Now principals are bill collectors," said one principal who asked to remain anonymous. "Some parents just don't pay and [schools] can't tell a kid that he can't eat"

For lunch money uncollected during the 2009-10 school year, schools will have funds deducted from their "surplus roll" set aside for the next fiscal year. For schools with no surplus, money will be deducted from next year's budget. The letter states that "in the coming weeks," school's will have their budgets "reduced by the total amount of uncollected fees as of February 2010." Schools that accrue uncollected fees for the period from March 2010 through June 2010 will have their surplus or next year's budget reduced by the additional amount.

Principals complain that there is no option for them to pay back money they are able to collect now, or that they may have collected but not yet deposited.

"We would work with any schools in that position," Feinberg said. If schools are able to collect more money, they would only be charged the amount owed at the end of the school year, she said.

In a letter objecting to the new measure, one principal documented efforts made to collect funds from families with outstanding balances, including sending monthly letters and making frequent phone calls. The practice of "taking instructional dollars from schools" penalizes all students, including those who are eligible for free lunch, this principal writes.

"We encourage principals to sit down with parents and explain how important it is for them to pay, especially with budgets being so tight," Feinberg said. "And, it's so important for families who do meet the minimum requirements [for free lunch] to fill out the forms."

Meanwhile the days of "free lunch" are over for the schools whose families are not paying for it.

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