Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Leaf Mrs. Tree Alone! Follow up on the Willingboro School Lunch Program

After I posted my first story about the change in school lunch policy at Willingboro School District, a lot has happened. Yes in just two days time!

First, my friend who first brought the issue to my attention was interviewed anonymously by her local news station, Fox Philly News. Since she fears retribution by the school district (they have a history of taking it out on the kids when their parents speak out -- how sad is that?), she got interviewed behind a tree. So we call her Mrs. Tree now.

You can see the story with her interview here:

School Lunch Program Upsets Parents

In addition, Fox & Friends has contacted the creator of the petition to interview her for a story that should air tomorrow. Because of her job for a different school district, she can't do the interview, but hopefully someone else will appear on the show to explain from an educator's viewpoint why this policy is short-sighted.

In the meantime, Mrs. Tree has written a letter to respond to some of the comments on the story she's seen on the Fox site and on my blog that further explains what is going on in Willingboro and why she is so upset.

Here is her letter in its entirety with no editing or commentary on my part:

Firstly, it needs to be noted that the $50,000 deficit the Superintendent mentioned in his TV interview is probably a combination of deadbeat parents AND internal cafeteria dysfunction. During previous years, the district has had NO notification policy at all for lunch account balances. The lunch personnel would just hand out a cheese or PBJ sandwich meal to students with no balance and inform the child to tell the parent to fill the account back up. For the entire time my child has been in school, for 5 years now, there has been no consistent written instructions or policy regarding any established district method of checking the balance on lunch accounts. In fact, I would guess each school in the district has a different procedure in place.

In Pre-K, we occasionally got printed statements, but every grade after that, no written notice was sent home. If you were able to go in during breakfast time to speak to the cafeteria personnel, they could give you the balance then, but many people work and can't do that. Additionally, at various times adults were told they were not allowed in the cafeteria in the morning unless they were accompanying a Pre-K student, so getting inside at all was questionable, at least at my school specifically.

So that deficit number the Superintendent is tossing out is probably not the result of a bunch of people abusing the system, but a combination of bad accounting practices at individual schools and, yes, probably some parents who found out that if they didn't send in money the kids still got fed. But the school did not pursue payment, and as far as I know, may not have even billed the accounts for the PBJ or cheese sandwich given out when the account was at 0.

There were only a handful of times when I found out my account was at 0, and I dutifully paid immediately. Notably, I only found out my account was depleted because my husband was told by the lunch room cashier when he went in to pay the cashier directly at breakfast, rather than sending in a check, which is what we usually did. I was expecting that I would be charged for any lunches given on those days I was at 0, but since I am not given access to a statement, I don't know if that is what they do. I hand over a check, and the cashier applies it. They were so relaxed and informal about it, that I never felt the need to really delve into the accounting. And I packed almost as much as I purchased lunch, so for many weeks I might carry a balance that is never tapped into.

But even if many parents WERE willfully abusing the system, and not just falling victim to the district's bad accounting, why ever should the STUDENT be humiliated in front of classmates for the parent's behavior? The district could contact the parent directly, bill the parent, fine the parent--any number of solutions that do not involve the student. But to humiliate and make a student go hungry? Never, in any way, would that be ethical.

And the district is planning on THROWING FOOD AWAY. People are starving. In this age of reduce, reuse, and recycle, why would it ever be ok to throw perfectly edible food in the trash? Especially if a child is going to return to his classroom hungry? Since the district is not saving money through this measure, the new policy is purely punitive, but it punishes the STUDENT, not the parent.

Lastly, I take issue with the tone of the letter, and the district's adversarial attitude toward parents as a whole. If the district is indeed having financial problems over this issue, there are other ways to address the parents. We are not their undisciplined children who need a firm hand. We are taxpayers, and we pay their salaries and vote board members into office. A little respect and information goes a long way in shaping the response parents would have had to the letter. They could have explained the new notification system in detail, reassuring parents that the new system would in fact ensure that their child would never go hungry if they paid promptly. Explain the new policy, detail the reason, and enlist parents as helpers in fixing the $50,000 lunch account deficit, not as adversaries. Reason with us. Perhaps we could, together, find a solution that ensures that a student never goes without lunch.

Instead, they send out a communication that is threatening, and, frankly, mean-spirited:

"If a student goes through the food service line and it is discovered that the student does not have the required funds for a meal, the Chartwells Food Service representative has been instructed by the Willingboro Board of Education to withhold the meal from the student, with the understanding that such meal cannot be re-served and must be discarded."

So, student, we HAVE the food here, but YOU cannot have it. Instead, we will throw it in the trash so that your hunger will teach your inattentive parent a lesson. When written in those terms, how can this policy be allowed to stand?

Sincerely,

Mrs. Tree
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