The Houston School District hired a debt collection agency after a handful of families ran up thousands of dollars in debts for unpaid school lunches for their children.

The district had $25,000 in unpaid school lunch debt at the start of this school year, according to Houston Superintendent Krin Abraham. She said that number has since decreased significantly.

In addition to turning over some of those bill to a debt collection firm, the Houston school board also revised its policy on school lunch debts before the start of the school year.

The new policy results in debt collectors being called in if a family’s unpaid bill for lunches hits $100 and payments are not made or arranged by the end of the month. Families are now also getting regular emails about account balances because of the new policy.

Abraham said the district was becoming increasingly concerned about the debts but also wanted to address the problem with sensitivity.

“We were kind of between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “We don’t want kids to be punished for a parent’s action but we have to manage our funds wisely for the taxpayers.”

Some of the families who were not paying for their children’s lunches were eligible to receive free or reduced lunches due to their income level but others “had the ability to pay,” Abraham said.

The debt collection agency was hired to recoup debts from “four or five families” who had not paid for lunches for years, according to the superintendent, but has not yet recovered all of the funds.

The new policy adopted by the school board stops students with a negative account balance from charging à la carte, items for lunch, Abraham said. They will, however, still get a lunch.

“We are not going to allow any child to go without food, period,” said Tom Stillin, the chairman of the Houston school board.

Stillin said it was more “cost effective” for the district to hire a debt collection agency than to have district officials attempt to recoup unpaid debts.

The identities of the families with debt for unpaid lunches is being carefully protected, Abraham said.

“We needed to make sure there would never be a chance of public shaming,” she said. “We didn’t want what happened in Stewartville to happen here.”

Reports that students whose parents were not paying for lunches in Stewartville, just south of Rochester, had their lunches taken away and thrown in the trash prompted a public outcry in recent weeks.

State Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, sponsored legislation in 2014 to stop the shaming of students who don’t have enough money in their accounts to pay for lunches. She said in a statement that because of the reports of what happened in Stewartville, she may introduce new legislation about the issue.

“I plan to discuss tightening the language around these practices to include withholding funds from school districts that choose to not comply,” Anderson said. “This is unacceptable and amounts to school sanctioned bullying of kids.”

In Houston, Stillin said some families may not want to apply for free or reduced lunches because of the stigma around what some might see as a “hand out.” But he said the district encouraged all families to apply to see if they are eligible.

A four-person household making less than $31,980 qualifies for free lunches in Minnesota for the 2017/18 school year. Reduced price lunches are available for families of four making less than $45,510, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

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Coulee Courier and Houston County News editor

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