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Across South Dakota, thousands of school lunch accounts carry a negative balance

Imagine if every public school in South Dakota gave every one of its students free lunch for a day.

That may seem implausible, but as far as financial impact, it's not far off from what happened during the 2017-18 school year.

According to data The Daily Republic collected from 122 public school districts in the state, for every student who attended a public school where meals were served during that year, there was about $3.20 in unpaid meal balances. In total, that adds up to $400,765 from more than 6,400 students and families who did not pay for lunches — more than enough money to account for a free lunch for every one of South Dakota's public school students.

Of course, that's not what happened. Many students across the state paid for their lunch every day last year, and many school districts ended the year with no negative lunch account balance whatsoever. So for those that do carry a negative balance, it's often one much bigger and more difficult to negate than the cost of a single school lunch.

Although The Daily Republic sent records requests to the 146 public, non-tribally-affiliated school districts in the state, 117 provided all the line-item data requested to better understand the scope of school lunch debt at no charge, meaning that these numbers are only representative of 80 to 85 percent of the state's school districts (some districts provided partial information, which is factored into some, but not all, of these statistics).

Of the remainder, eight school districts would not provide any data without payment of between $25 and $250; seven provided partial data but requested that The Daily Republic examine their records in person to get the remainder; six would provide information but never did; four gave no response; three provided partial data and didn't respond to additional requests; and one provided partial data but requested a fee for the remainder.

In total, between compiling self-reported information and going to district offices to obtain data, The Daily Republic was able to obtain some or all of the requested data from 128 school districts, providing a representative sample of the prevalence of school lunch debt across the state.

Pride vs. need

Students in every district are eligible to fill out an application for free or reduced lunches. To have their application approved, they must meet certain income standards, which are determined by the Department of Education before the beginning of each school year and which vary based on the number of people in the family. Several superintendents said that often, families who may qualify for free or reduced lunches will not fill out the application, often as a matter of pride.

"There's a part of that reality where (they're) kind of too proud to maybe say, 'I need some help,'" said Dan Trefz, superintendent of the Miller School District, where 35 percent of students ended last year with a negative account balance. "Maybe they don't want to really fill that out, because it does show that they need some help."

In recent years, the issue of school lunch shaming has been a matter of controversy. Most recently in South Dakota, Senate Bill 162, which would have prohibited school districts from publicly identifying students carrying a school lunch debt, was proposed. The bill was defeated in February, but while school districts are legally still allowed to do whatever they find necessary to collect school lunch debt, many are choosing more subtle tactics.

The Miller School District had a total of $19,325.86 in unpaid lunch balances last year, more than any district besides the Sioux Falls School District and Rapid City Area Schools. Whether they can pay for their lunch or not, every student enrolled at a Miller school is given a lunch, and students who can't pay for theirs aren't made to eat something different than those who can.

"We wanted to make sure that the kids were fed because it's not really their fault that their parents aren't able to pay their bills," Trefz said. "We don't want to see the effects here at school, which is kids' lack of concentration and lack of energy. We would rather have them fed and performing well than worried about their lunch bill."

Trefz said that about 20 percent of Miller students last year qualified for free or reduced lunches. That's a number that's high enough to raise concern, but too low for the district to be able to waive lunch fees altogether.

In addition to waiving some or all of the lunch costs for students who meet the criteria for a free or reduced-price lunch, Cheriee Watterson, director of the South Dakota Department of Education's office of Child and Adult Nutrition, said in an email that the Department of Education, working with the Department of Social Services, automatically gives free meal status to any student who receives benefits from SNAP, TANF or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations without requiring the standard free or reduced lunch application.

If at least 40 percent of students in a district are automatically matched with three meals in that way, the district can apply for the Community Eligible Provision (CEP), which provides free meals to all students in that district.

Watterson said that 24 South Dakota school districts offer free lunches to all their students, and an additional two have specific school buildings on CEP.

In other words, the state's districts could face an even higher amount in unpaid lunch balances if schools on CEP — the schools in areas with the highest levels of poverty — charged for lunches, rather than waiving the costs for all students.

In the 2016-17 school year (the most recent data available from the South Dakota Department of Education), South Dakota schools were given more food service assistance at the state and federal levels than they actually took in from food service sales. That year, across the state, schools took in revenue of $32.4 million from food service sales, $311,340 in state food service assistance and nearly $37.6 million in federal food service assistance.

That's in part because USDA school lunch programs provide partial reimbursement to schools for all meals served. Reimbursement rates are highest for free lunches provided to students who meet federal criteria, but schools are also reimbursed for meals that are served and fully paid for. Watterson said that this is intended to bolster schools' food service budgets.

However, Miller doesn't actually have much of an issue with losing money. Thanks to funds generated by students and adults who do pay for lunches, combined with the federal reimbursements, the district has enough revenue to compensate for the more than $19,000 in negative balances.

Not all districts are so lucky. Trefz said that in districts in which he used to work, it was nearly impossible to use a food service balance to cancel out unpaid balances completely, without taking money away from other areas of the budget.

Faced with the dilemma of not wanting to deny students lunch but also not wanting to go into the red, South Dakota school districts are now forgoing some of their revenue from meals in favor of less conventional tactics in order to break even.

Creative financing

While federal and state aid is generally formulaic in its distribution, individual school districts are more outside the box when finding ways to combat student lunch debt.

Many districts across the state have donation programs known as Angel Funds, to which community members can donate, and a few districts have similar but less formal programs. Teachers in the Alcester-Hudson school district had a fundraiser last year which raised $385, covering about half of the district's negative lunch accounts, and students at Gettysburg High School started what's now known as Project 22, a fundraising campaign named for the 22 students who couldn't pay for their lunch accounts during the 2016-17 school year.

Aside from the Sioux Falls School District, which had one anonymous donor give $82,000 toward lunch payments last year, the Brandon Valley School District donated more money to lunch accounts than any other district in the state that responded to The Daily Republic's records requests.

Brandon Valley waives reduced lunch fees, providing every student who qualifies for either free or reduced lunches a meal at no cost. This is done by donating the money raised during the district's summer lunch program toward reduced-price lunches.

"It's a very beneficial thing," said Brandon Valley Superintendent Jarod Larson. "I believe that we are able to strategically target the group or the families that maybe struggle financially the most, as there would be a charge for those meals. We're able to eliminate that, so that's something that we feel very, very good about."

In addition to accepting donations for a district Angel Fund, the Brandon Optimists have hosted a fundraising event for the last several years from which all proceeds go toward the district's nutrition fund. In total last year, Brandon Valley raised about $5,000, completely negating every unpaid balance in the district.

"Our patrons are extremely active, and a group that is involved specifically with that portion of our programming is the Brandon Optimists," Larson said. "They are incredibly supportive of our families that have needs specifically in that area."

In Miller, Trefz doesn't think community donations could realistically solve his school district's problem.

"Honestly, I think the responsibility falls on the parents," he said. "We have instances where somebody will come in and donate to pay off somebody's bill. Well, then the very next year, it comes right back. It's a Band-Aid on a big wound."

While the Miller School District provides a lunch to every student, that doesn't mean the district is letting unpaid balances go. In fact, thanks to recent measures, the district now will file small claims on unpaid balances. When balances get past a certain point, they're then sent on to an attorney that the district uses to do collections, and parents may have a garnishment put in place to pay for the balance. But even that isn't always effective.

"People can essentially kind of hide from you," Trefz said. "If their income is low enough, even if you have a garnishment, you may not get anything, because there could be other people that have garnishments, as well, and they got on there first."

In those cases, when a person can't be found, Trefz said balances may simply have to be written off eventually.

Even after nearly $100,000 in donated money was applied across the state last school year, districts were still left with a total of $300,997 in unpaid lunch balances, according to the largely self-reported data. While some of that amount will be paid as school starts up again, much of it rolls over to the next school year, causing the total amount owed to snowball over time. And while schools additionally receive a considerable amount of government reimbursement for the lunches they serve, like in Miller, some of that money is simply written off as a loss.

Rapid City Area Schools ultimately lost the most last year, before considering reimbursements. With no donation program, the district ended the school year with a total unpaid balance of $94,487. And even with its sizable donation, the Sioux Falls School District still ended the year with $57,000 in unpaid balances.

Although 28 districts started the summer with no school lunch debt whatsoever, 93 others had at least a few dollars left unpaid and averaged about $1,800 missing on 53 accounts, or about 7 percent of those districts' total student population. And while school districts are reimbursed for some of this money and some is recovered through other funding, the fact remains that across the state, thousands of students were unable to pay for at least one meal last year.

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