Hillsboro schools are missing thousands of dollars after a new law barred lunch workers from reminding students to pay for their meals.

STAFF PHOTO: CHRIS OERTELL - First and second grade students line up during lunchtime at Free Orchards Elementary School in Cornelius which is a Title I school.A bill passed unanimously last summer with great intentions but tough consequences has hit area school districts hard — so hard that local districts, including Hillsboro, have found themselves dealing with thousands of dollars of debt so far this year.

The "anti-lunch shaming" act, which was passed by the Legislature and went into effect last summer, was created to ensure students are always fed at school, regardless of their financial situation. The law ensures that students are given the same meal options as everybody else and aren't singled out for their inability to pay.

It seems simple: Feed children equally, and don't bring attention to students without money in their account by reminding them about it or making them wear wristbands or stamps to mark their situation.

But thousands of dollars of negative debt later, schools have found themselves in a sticky situation.

"What was obvious with the bill is that it wasn't run past anyone in the industry," said Nathan Roedel, executive director of nutrition services for Hillsboro School District, who said he and others in the district were in the dark about the legislation last year.

Roedel said at the end of last year, the Hillsboro School District had about $1,100 in lunch money debt. So far this year, it has run up $22,000, with a projected $40,000 by the end of the school year in June.

In neighboring Forest Grove School District, lunch debt went from $900 in 2017 to $17,000 so far this year.

Roedel agrees the message behind the bill and many aspects of it are positive, but said one major detail in the bill seems to be sole reason for the rising debt ------- included in the bill is the statement, "A school district shall direct communications about amounts owed by a student for meals to the student's parents or guardian and not to the student."

The effect is straightforward, Roedel said, district staff are unable to ask students for their lunch money, remind them about the money they owe or ask them to remind their parents. The district can only communicate directly with parents themselves.

"The law says we can't talk about the money they owe once they get to our line," Roedel said. "Even though they owe money, we're like, 'Well, have a nice day!'"

Because staff aren't able to ask or remind students to pay for their lunch or breakfast, Roedel said students often forget they have money in their backpack, or to ask their parents to provide it.

"We contact a family about a negative balance and they will say, 'Oh, we gave a check or we gave cash (to our child),'" said Stacie Reiter, director of nutrition services for Forest Grove School District. "Since we aren't allowed to ask the student if they have money, then the money just sits in their backpack and the bill goes unpaid,'"

In 1946, National School Lunch Act created the free or reduced lunch program, which allows qualifying families to receive either free or reduced-price lunch and breakfast.

In Oregon, students who qualify for reduced-price lunches are eligible to receive them for free.

Some schools in the districts fall under Title I, which offers free meals to the entire school if a large enough percentage of students come from low-income families.

"(The 2017 law) really affects our students who may not qualify for free or reduced meals, or whose families haven't taken an opportunity to see if they would qualify," Reiter said.

Once the debt has incurred, the free and reduced program cannot cover the already owed expense, Reiter said.

"Maybe all along, that family could have been receiving free and reduced benefits," Reiter said.

Schools are left to communicate with parents directly, but resulted haven't been positive, Reir and Roedel said. Letters and emails to parents and an immense number of phone call reminders have led to little response,.

Hillsboro begins by sending automated calls home twice per week reminding parents that their child owes money, Roedel said.

"Once (the debt) is over $50, a human calls instead of a robot and says, 'Hey, what's going on — do you want to set up a payment plan or sign up for free and reduced meals?'" Roedel said.

Roedel said that work has led to a new set of responsibilities and a greater level of effort placed on staff.

"We can do all of the communication that we think would be necessary to recoup it all, but who has the manpower and time to do that?" Reiter said. "That isn't something that anyone's departments were set up to handle with this bill.

"It takes time for someone to call families and discuss this with them. It costs money to send letters home, with postage and mailing and supplies and time," Reiter added.

Reiter said the districts are looking for guidance on how to most efficiently reach families and help parents understand the importance of paying the debt.

"It's important for us to recoup as much of that money as we can, because we don't want to pull it out of general funds," Reiter said. "But there has to be some help for districts to get this money back from families."

Reiter believes parents in the district are not aware of the severity of the debt, or what that might mean for the schools if the money is not paid back in time.

Under regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, districts must pay off that debt at the end of the school year, Reiter said.

"Those balances have to be zeroed out, and the funds to support that then come from general fund to reconcile that debt," Reiter said.

When that happens, Reiter said, it means fewer dollars for curriculum, instruction, teacher salaries and classroom materials.

"Now districts have to decide what they're going to do with this debt if they can't recoup it from the families who incurred it, and what, long-term, that looks like for their budgets," Reiter said. "Essentially, districts will have to budget for that debt if they can't collect it, and where does that money come from? That comes from programming and salaries."

Roedel has been vocal of his opposition to the bill since it went into effect last August.

"I wasn't going to sit down and just let it happen," said Roedel, who has been working with several statewide organizations to compile data on the issue.

Roedel plans to present the information to Salem and state Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, minority leader in the Oregon House of Representatives and one of the legislation's chief sponsors last year. Roedel said he hopes to make some technical fixes to the law.

"The basic ask has been to allow us to have the ability to ask students if they brought money for the present transaction, keeping in mind not to discuss past-due or delinquent amounts," Roedel said. "And to have a statement included that specifies parents (and) guardians as being responsible for meal charges."

Though it has been no easy task, Roedel believes he is starting to get traction on presenting the change.

"As long as (the Legislature) is willing to work with us to make it better with operators, we can fix this," he said.

McLane's office did not respond to a request for comment by The Tribune's press deadline, nor did the office of state Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, who was the legislation's other principal sponsor.

Roedel is passionate about making changes to the lunch-shaming law, but he doesn't believe the law is all negative.

"It's not a bad thing, it's a good thing," said Roedel. "In general, Oregon is a very supportive state in offering meals to the students it serves."

By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
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