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Parents Upset Over District 21's Lunch Account Collection Tactics
The threat of hungry kids has parents up in arms in the Central A&M school district. District officials recently started a push to collect money parents owe for school lunches, but their methods are causing some concerns.
Letters went out to parents with students at Bond Elementary, letting them know their lunch accounts had a negative balance. A bright orange sticker on the bottom of that letter stated students with negative balances would have to bring their own lunches from home. This had several parents worried because their students already qualify for free lunch.
"I think it's sad at this age and the fact that they are saying that he can't have lunch, have a hot lunch, and I have to bring one from home to eat until it was paid in full," said Aubre Ekiss, who received one of the letters.
Ekiss has a son in second grade who is signed up for free lunch. She and her husband choose to be a single-income family so she can stay at home with her son, who suffers from cystic fibrosis and epilepsy, but a single income for a family with medical expenses doesn't go far.
"You can't always come up with that money. You have a budget, you have to stick with it. If it wasn't in the budget and you didn't know about it, you can't pay for it," Ekiss said.
The family received the letter because her son picks up milk which isn't included for families qualifying for free lunch. The district says the family owes $7.60 for milk. The sticker stating she would have to come up with lunches and milk money she hadnt planned for had her worried. Her sister, Kylee Miller, a single mother of two, was in the same boat.
"I called the school yesterday and I talked with Joanie who's the secretary, and she told me because of the milk, it wasn't free, that I needed to send him lunch for my son. Which is upsetting because I get free lunch because I'm a single mom. It's not right, that's my main concern. Don't threaten my kid, to take away my kid's meal," Miller explained.
These sisters were lucky enough to have parents that could help them cover the costs of their milk bill, but the threat the stickers suggest has them worried about other parents who don't have anyone to help them.
Meanwhile, according to the school district, the stickers are an empty threat.
"We feed every kid no matter what--if they have lunches, if they don't have lunches," Superintendent Kyle Vonschnase said.
When lunch balances fall too far into the red, school officials say students have to have the sun butter (a peanut butter alternative) and jelly sandwiches for lunch. Vonschnase says the letters were sent to anybody who owed without checking to see if they received free lunch.
When asked if the stickers were then inaccurate for some families, Vonschnase replied, "I think the sticker is just something that's always been done in practice and thats just kind of always how it's been."
Vonschnase has been superintendent for two years. He said this is the first hes hearing of the stickers, but notes the district does have a high amount of negative lunch account balances that need collected.
Representatives with the Illinois State Board of Education say districts cannot withhold free school lunches from students who qualify. The district could only keep the students from buying a la carte items, like the milk.
At Central A&M, students are also reminded of their negative balances on signs posted in the halls with their names and what they owe.
If you have questions for the district about your student's account, Vonschnase asks that parents and guardians call him at (217) 226-4042.