Board serves up final changes on unpaid meals policy

For nearly three months, the Cherry Hill Board of Education’s unpaid meals policy has simmered in the public purview with things coming to a boil at an August board meeting when the district came under fire for language that indicated students whose accounts were in arrears $20 or more should be cut off from receiving lunch. At Tuesday night’s meeting, the board served up their final changes to the policy with more forgiving language and opportunities to open the lines of communication between the district and Cherry Hill families.

The revised policy passed unanimously and without any discussion from the board. Under the update, when a student owes $10 on their account, a letter is sent home notifying parents that their account is in arrears. The new policy eliminates the substitute (and much talked about) tunafish meal and allows students to receive the meal of the day regardless of their balance.

At the $25 mark, the building principal or guidance counselor will contact the parents over the phone to discuss the balance, as well as any extenuating factors that may be going on at home. During this phone call, parents will be encouraged to complete a free and reduced school meals application. 

At the $75 threshold, parents are required to attend an in-person meeting with the superintendent, business administrator and building principal. If payment in full is not issued within 10 school days of this meeting, the consequences will be dictated by Policy 5513: care of school property. This policy withholds privileges such as participation in extracurricular activities, school trips, prom, purchasing a yearbook and an array of other activities until outstanding debts are paid.

Superintendent Joseph Meloche applauded the board for tackling the revision publicly despite the controversy that came with that choice. He said the state statute on unpaid meals has language that states meals “shall” be withheld, but under the care of school policy, they use the word “may,” to indicate that there’s room for discretion on a case-by-case basis.

“The goal of what we do is responsibility with compassion,” Meloche said.

At the end of August, Meloche penned a letter to Governor Phil Murphy asking him to remove the “shall not be served” clause from the state statute. To date, Meloche has not heard back from Murphy, but he has been in touch with Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D) and Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D) about getting legislation introduced to change the language.

“I expect that you’ll see change in legislation that will be introduced this fall about what that statute says,” Meloche said.

While several board members expressed their satisfaction with the changes at their September meeting, some members of the public were less supportive of the changes on Tuesday night. Vibiana Cvetkovic, a mother of six children who went through the school district and grandmother to two elementary students, said the district is punishing students for their parents’ financial obligations. She said the board is operating under an “elitist assumption” that parents are not paying their bills because they don’t want to. 

“It fills me with absolute dismay that this board would ever consider such a regulation for our children,” Cvetkovic said.

Cvetkovic encouraged the board to find different, more creative ways to recoup school lunch debt such as crowdfunding or through philanthropic endeavors.

Jacob Graff, the student board representative for Cherry Hill High School East, wondered what impact being cut off from extracurricular activities might have on students. He said students often express themselves through their extracurricular activities, and they also carry weight on a college transcript. 

“I think it is completely unfair that students can be penalized for their parents’ inability to pay or unwillingness to pay,” Graff said.

Barbara Wilson, the district’s public information officer, said that conversations around the unpaid meals policy have been plagued by a lot of misinformation. Wilson said some media outlets have reported that the policy is mandatory and that when students accounts are in arrears $75, they’ll automatically have privileges revoked. 

“That’s an erroneous simplification of what it is,” Wilson said.

She emphasized that to date, no student has ever been cut off from receiving lunch, and by the same token, under the new policy, each school’s principal has room for discretion when it comes to removing privileges.  

And what’s become of the sandwich that started it all?

“Tuna is still on the menu for anyone who chooses to buy it because there are some kids who like tunafish sandwiches,” Wilson said. 

The next meeting of the Cherry Hill Board of Education will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 26 at 7 p.m. in the Malberg Administration Building.