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Perham-Dent schools examine late lunch fee issue

PERHAM, Minn. - With delinquent school lunch payments mounting, Perham-Dent school officials are cooking up a new policy intended to limit free lunches without making kids go hungry.

In many cases, it isn't even an issue of parents not having the money, said Superintendent Tamara Uselman.

"More than anything, we have busy people who simply don't have time to monitor their lunch accounts," Uselman said. "We need to figure out a way to be faster with our notification."

School board members spent half of their November meeting discussing a new unpaid lunch policy, only to table a rough draft. They expect to discuss the issue again in December.

Officials know this much: They will begin using automated phone calls and e-mails to parents, informing them when accounts are overdue because sending slips home with students isn't effective. Sometimes parents never receive that message.

Beyond that the district is weighting its options.

Some districts stamp a child's hand when their lunch account is low in funds, but School Board Chairman Jim Rieber is reluctant to do that because he fears students who get the stamp will be stigmatized.

In addition, district officials are wrestling with what to do once the student is in line. For instance when there is no money in a student's account how do you tactfully deny lunch or re-route the student without calling attention to them?

"I don't think you want us to embarrass the kid," said middle school Principal Scott Bjerke.

The schools do offer students with delinquent lunch accounts a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and milk for free. That meets minimum dietary requirements, school officials say.

"We won't have a hungry child in school," said Uselman.

School officials say that district budget cuts have contributed to the delinquent lunch situation. Because school positions were cut, there are fewer employees to maintain contact parents about lunch accounts.

And officials acknowledge that it's been a tough economic year for many.