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  • Writer's pictureRoger Sims, Journal Staff

Prairie View, parents working to catch up on lunch debt

LA CYGNE – The Prairie View USD 362 Board of Education learned at its meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 19, that a problem with school debt information not being rolled over from one school year to the next was being corrected.

Todd Wollard, district food service administrator, gave an update to the board about a problem with information on delinquent lunch accounts not being automatically rolled over from year to year. Apparently existing debt needed to be manually entered in the district’s administrative program and wasn’t being done.

That resulted in some parents finding out that they owed more than current records indicated.

However, Wollard said that six lunch accounts that were significantly behind have been paid up in full.

He also said that the enrollment rate for free-and-reduced lunches in the district was now up to about 40%, still below the pre-pandemic enrollment. 

According to a Kansas Appleseed report, from March 2020 to June 2022 a federal school meals program provided free meals to about 480,000 school children across the state, including the Prairie View schools. Kansas Appleseed, an advocacy group, released its report on the impact of school lunches based on reports from 20% of the state’s 286 school districts last October.

The report said that since the free meals program ended, families in the state have experienced a six-fold increase in school meal debt. The school lunch debt across the state reached $23.5 million in 2023 compared to $4.5 million in 2019.

Part of the problem, according to Prairie View Superintendent Chris Johnson, is that following the 12-month free program, parents have not been signing up for the free-and-reduce meals program. Meanwhile the school cafeteria continues to feed the students. One family in the Prairie View district had a debt of more than $500.

According to the report, about 41% of students across the state were signed up for free meals through the National School Lunch Program during the 2022-23 school year. Another 7% qualified for reduced charges, but families have to remain under a certain income level to qualify for either option.

A family of four has to make under $39,000 a year to qualify for free meals, and under $55,000 a year to qualify for reduced-price meals.

Before the pandemic, the number of families in the district enrolled for those combined programs was 50% to 60%, according to Johnson. Typically, more families with elementary aged children tend to be more apt to apply for the program.

But Prairie View is not alone.

“Every school district I’ve talked to has not gotten back to pre-COVID numbers,” she told the board.

Even those parents who go ahead and sign up for the program now will still need to deal with debt incurred before they filed for the programs.

“There will remain a negative balance up to that point,” Wollard said. However, he added that going forward the expenses will be taken care of.

Johnson also told the board that she expects the insurance premium for the district to take a substantial jump for the coming year. The school’s insurance broker is Truly Insurance, and the only company to provide insurance to schools in the area is EMC.

The superintendent said that since 2013 EMC has lost more than $15 million on its liability claims alone, including a $7 million loss last year. The company is not taking on any more schools, and if a school drops the company, it won’t be able to return to the company again.

“There’s not a lot of choices,” Johnson said. “I’ve been talking to other schools … and there’s not a lot of choices for schools in Kansas.”

She added that the district will likely be facing a 25% rate increase when it renews. She said the company will have different cost structures for older roofs, and roofs older than 35 years won’t be covered.

Johnson said the district will begin working with EMC in February to update information but that the policy doesn’t renew until July.

The board voted to honor a request by Pleasanton USD 344 to help pay for the cost of the STARS (Southeast Technical Academy for Rural Students) building including maintenance costs. That district, which pays for the building, asked that other school districts that send students to that program pay $150 per student for each semester that student attended this year.

Ten Prairie View students are attending two semesters, and seven are attending one semester for a total of $4,060.

While he supported the expense, board member Brad Heide pointed out that students who attend other community college classes pay a fee for credit. STARS instructors are Fort Scott Community College (FSCC) staff. He said the district needed to develop a plan for next year so when a parent who is paying for a FSCC dual credit advanced English class questions the difference, the Prairie View district will have a policy in place.

The board also discussed the difference between STARS and a trade program at Anderson County that is paid through federal funds.

The board also approved a measure that would extend contracts for administrators through the 2025-26 school year. That includes the superintendent, assistant superintendent and the building principals for all four district schools.

It also approved the extension of contracts for district directors that would extend their contracts through the 2024-25 school year. That would include the activities director, the technology director and the board clerk/business manager.

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