The Durango School District 9-R board informally agreed Tuesday to change a policy that says students with outstanding lunch debt will receive partial lunches.
The decision to change policy came after the circulation of an online petition calling for an end to the lunch policy. The petition garnered more than 1,700 signatures in three days.
Posted on change.org, the petition asked the district to ensure all students receive full meals and partner with community members, businesses and nonprofits to ensure lunch debts are covered. The document also asks the district to communicate with parents about lunch debt to ensure students are not humiliated or shamed by lunch debt.
The district has not served a partial lunch this year, said Superintendent Dan Snowberger. But the board asked him to revise the lunch policy to reflect the reality that full lunches are served to all students in cafeterias.
“If it’s a practice that’s not happening, let’s take that language out,” said Board President Shere Byrd.
The district’s lunch-debt rules say students who have not paid for three or more meals will receive a piece of fruit and a cheese stick or granola bar, according to the district’s website.
The district had the policy because it was required by the federal government as part of receiving funding for free and reduced lunches, Snowberger said.
Board member Kristin Smith said the U.S. Department of Agriculture policy has changed, and the federal government does not recommend serving partial lunches to students as part of maintaining funding. Snowberger contended consequences for lunch debt are still part of state policy.
The board asked Snowberger to research a new district policy that would protect federal funding for lunches.
“If the kind of language that is objectionable to our constituents isn’t required, let’s see if we can craft it in a different sort of way,” Byrd said. She also said the board should have taken up the issue sooner.
In April, Miller Middle School posted a sign in the cafeteria letting students know if they had debt they would be served partial lunches.
9-R parent and petition author Jessica Obleton said she wanted to see Snowberger follow through on the board’s request to change the policy in a meaningful way.
“They asked him. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen,” she said after the meeting.
At one point, the board discussed simply changing the description of the lunches from partial to alternative but backed away from the idea. Obleton said such a move was unacceptable.
Many students with lunch debt are from families that can afford to pay for lunch, Snowberger said, and some members of the community may become upset to learn the school district is not holding those families accountable for paying.
“We have a handful of families that have refused to return calls,” he said.
The district principals, counselors and other staff work hard to reach out to families with lunch debt and determine why they are not paying their bills because it can be a sign of crisis, he said. Many schools also already have parent-teacher organizations that will raise money to cover lunch debt, and families can also qualify for free and reduced lunch at any point in the year, he said.
Smith pointed out that community members do not want to see students punished for any decision on the part of their parents not to pay, regardless of whether they can afford to pay.
“They don’t care what the reason is. ... They still want to make sure the kids gets lunch,” she said.
The board directed Snowberger to issue guidance to residents concerned about lunch debt to donate directly to the district finance department. The current lunch debt at 9-R is about $1,300.