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Confusion Expected At Start Of New Lunch Pay Plan

The new system requires parents to prepay for school lunches, replacing the old credit system which resulted in more than $80,000 in still outstanding debt.

School starts today with a and a new lunch payment system that the School Committee admits will likely cause some confusion in the first few weeks.

It also starts with more than $80,000 still outstanding on old and current lunch accounts accrued under the old system which allowed students to purchase meals on credit.

The new pay system will allow students to purchase lunch only if there is a plus balance in their online accounts.

That system, called NutriKids, for students in all schools until Sept. 16.

Until then, elementary and middle school students whose parents have a plus balance in their lunch accounts will receive a payment card with which to purchase lunch. The cards will be collected at the cafeteria when lunch is purchased, and then handed out again by homeroom or classroom teachers the next morning.

If a student does not have a plus balance, a card will not be issued.

Students at the high school will continue to be able to pay with cash until the NutriKids system is in place.

“When in doubt, send a bagged lunch,” School Committee Chairwoman Suzy Littlefield said.

Letters with specific information about how to register with NutriKids will be sent home on Friday, Berdell said.

The move to online payment comes in the aftermath of last winter’s revelation that there was more than outstanding.

Much of that old debt has been collected, according to school Business Manager Ruth Quinn Berdell.

But $10,900 in unpaid bills remains from “old” accounts prior to July 1, 2010.

And unpaid balances on current accounts is $70,600, although Berdell said nearly $5,000 of that has been collected over the past three days.

Of the 4,069 active accounts, 792 have balances due, according to Berdell who said some owe as little as 5 cents, while others owe hundreds.

She said the amount owed on current accounts is in line with past years, and that once families are home from summer vacation and settled into the school year the bulk of the balances on current accounts is usually paid.

The School Committee has authorized the to collect on the old accounts, most of which is from families who no longer have students in the local schools.

The debt is what brought former Town Meeting member Richard J. Plouffe, an attorney in town, to the meeting.

He spoke at the start of the meeting to get answers to his request for information and his offer to buy the debt from the school department, which he said he offered to do weeks ago with no response.

But the offer was turned down last night by Superintendent Bella T. Wong who said privacy laws would prevent the schools from turning over students’ delinquent accounts to a private individual.

Plouffe disputed that interpretation of privacy laws, saying once a case went to small claims court it would become public anyway.

Wong, herself a lawyer, countered by saying that may be true with individual cases once they are in the courts, but in the aggregate, such information would be private.

Plouffe then sat through the rest of the nearly three hour meeting, listening to the presentation by Berdell about the new lunch pay system and the still outstanding debt.

At the end of the meeting, when citizens again have a chance to address the School Committee, Plouffe expressed dissatisfaction with the new pay system.

“When kids start school, if their parents didn’t pay and they didn’t send a lunch, they don’t eat. That’s terrible,” he said.

He also said he and many others in town are angry about the still unpaid debt.

“By my calculations there is $81,500 (in uncollected lunch debt), and I didn’t see any of you express outrage over this,” he said.

He said he had been texting friends throughout the meeting, and the texts he received back say, “Somehow they are treating this as normal,” he said.

“If this is normal, don’t come to me asking for more money for your budget if you’re carrying an $81,000 debt,” he said texts he received read.

Plouffe also said the school’s plan to hire constables to collect the unpaid old debt won’t work.

“I’ve been an attorney for 30 years,” he said. “Constables don’t collect debt. ...They have no power to collect debt.”

Plouffe also rescinded his offer to buy the debt from the schools.

“I don’t want to help you anymore because you don’t want my help,” he said.

The School Committee did not respond, which is its usual practice during the “Citizen Speak” portion of its meetings.

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