The Blaine County school board unanimously scrapped a controversial clause in its school lunch policy that would have district administrators contact the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s child protective services if parents were delinquent on their student’s bill.

In September, Communications Director Heather Crocker said the district never took that step, which the firm MBST Law included in the most recent draft of the policy written during 2016.

But the language’s inclusion in an email to parents prior to the school year raised alarm—and prompted the district’s policy committee to clarify its stance. So, it recommended striking a phrase authorizing a building principal to contact Department of Health and Welfare if an overdue statement goes five days without an attempt to pay it.

“The statement … has caused confusion and fear among some parents,” the committee wrote in its recommendation. “Removing this statement makes it clear that this is not a practice of the District.”

The district will still contact child protective services if it believes a student is at risk—that just won’t happen in the context of its food service policies.

“I want to reiterate that this policy was updated three years ago, but circumstances were different then,” Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes said during a school board meeting Tuesday. “The phrase we’re removing caused a lot of panic.”

The edit does not change the district’s policy toward collecting unpaid tabs. Parents are notified when an account goes negative. After the school year, those balances are turned over to an outside agency for collection. Each year, the students accrue between $15,000 and $22,000 in unpaid school food debt, according to District Finance Manager Bryan Fletcher.

Students won’t be turned away from the lunch line for an outstanding bill, Holmes told parents and staff in September. Social workers are usually the first to reach out to parents when concerns over payment arise, Crocker said.

Their first preference is to enroll a student in the free and reduced-price program. To do it, parents apply by reporting their income to the district’s free and reduced determining official—in Blaine County, that’s Administrative Assistant Karen Hoffman—who evaluates eligibility. The income limits vary by the size of the household applying. In 2019, a kid in a family of four earning less than $47,638 annually qualifies for reduced meal prices—between 30 and 40 cents—while those earning less than $33,475 get them free.

Here, that’s not the only option. If financial circumstances change dramatically, or the federal program isn’t an option, social workers can tap the “farmers market fund” to pay for meals. Fletcher doesn’t know why it’s called that—it only pays for cafeteria meals. But, outside the families and their social worker, it is completely anonymous; not even the administration knows who’s using it, Holmes said.

The farmers market fund uses some district money, Fletcher said, but it relies on private donations to stay afloat.

“We have enjoyed some kind donations from folks over the years,” he said.

Email the writer: mdee@mtexpress.com

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