For Kids and Schools, Lunches Depend on Big Money

Collin Altic, a 14-year-old freshman from Willard High School in Willard, Missouri, recently found himself the victim of a new policy aimed at reducing the amount of money lost annually in school lunch charges. When Altic attempted to pay for his lunch earlier this week, he was told that he'd have to return his tray because his school lunch account didn't have enough of a balance to cover the purchase.

Administrators explained that the new policy, which is in place only in the district's high school, forbids any charges that puts the account into a negative balance. With 4,000 kids the overages were taking a real bite out of the school budget. Last year, Willard School District had to eat more than $20,000 in debit lunch payments that were never made up.

The policy in place at elementary and middle schools are different. Students are allowed to charge up to $10 onto their accounts, but parents are expected to make good on these charges before the end of the year. Willard School District Superintendent Kent Medlin said that the policy isn't purely punitive. He said that any time the charge is denied, staffers are supposed to attempt to figure out what the problem is. For instance, staffers should try to find out if the student's family might be having financial difficulties that might quality the high-schooler for reduced-cost or free lunch. If that is the case, assistance should be offered in filling out an application.

But Candi Altic, Collin's mother, believes the district should be more understanding than that. While accepting full responsibility for forgetting to top up a lunch account, she added that sometimes parents get overwhelmed and can't always remember everything.

Medlin remains unmoved, however, and maintains that the firm no-serve policy will stay in place.

"We've instructed our people in lunch lines that we're not going to have charges at the high school," Medlin said.

Meanwhile, those in charge of school lunches in Kenton County School District in Northern Kentucky don't seem nearly as concerned with pinching pennies as Medlin. At least that was not the conclusion of the recent report by the state auditor that detailed expenses of more then $115,000 for lavish trips to various hot spots around the nation, including New York, Las Vegas and Miami, by the former nutrition services director Ginger Gary.

Gary, who has been in her position for more than two decades, abruptly retired last year after meeting with state auditors who questioned her travel habits. Kenton County, which is one of the largest districts in the state and serves about 15,000 students, unknowingly funded excursions like the 2009 one to Las Vegas for the School Nutrition Association's annual conference, which cost the district more than $40,000. The charges included hotel stays, airfare and various other expenses.

The report concluded the school district was lax in monitoring its finances. It said district officials were not aware of many of the out-of-state trips and did not learn of them until the office of State Auditor Adam Edelen requested records.

School district officials were surprised to learn of the lavish spending by former nutrition services director Ginger Gray, said Barb Martin, the district's deputy superintendent.
"The district was shocked because we consider ourselves good stewards of taxpayers' money," Martin said Wednesday. She said the nutrition services department had an account that wasn't overseen by the finance department, allowing Gray to make quick purchases.

09 26, 2012
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