ROGERS -- Rogers School District families have amassed nearly a quarter of a million dollars of debt in their students' meal accounts, according to district officials.
That's more than double the combined total of Northwest Arkansas' three other large districts.
Bentonville reported debt of $40,000 as of Dec. 19. Fayetteville had $38,000 and Springdale had $11,000 of debt, according to district officials.
Rogers isn't alone when it comes to meal account debt.
Three weeks ago, an anonymous donor paid off the school lunch debt at Pulaski Heights Elementary School in Little Rock, according to a school Facebook post.
Patrick Eaton, another donor, paid a $6,732.54 meal debt at Crystal Hill Elementary School in the Pulaski County Special School District, according to KHTV and KARK news reports, and a post on the district's website.
Nationally, 75% of all school districts reported having student meal debt at the end of the 2017-18 school year, according to a survey this year by the School Nutrition Association.
The survey, which received responses from 812 school districts, showed the amount of debt has increased substantially in recent years. The median amount of meal debt per district rose 70% from the 2012-13 school year to 2017-18.
In the Rogers school system in Northwest Arkansas, Sharla Osbourn, an assistant superintendent for general administration, said she doesn't know why the meal debt ballooned to $242,000.
The district of 15,700 students has provided parents information about its online payment system and recently emailed parents reminding them of the importance of paying for meals at the time of purchase or in advance, Osbourn said.
Rogers will begin sending home account balance reminders either weekly or biweekly starting in January, regardless of whether those accounts are positive or negative, Osbourn said.
She speculated a contributing factor to Rogers' large debt is a decline in the percentage of students participating in the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program operating in public schools.
Rogers has 55.5% of its students participating in the program this school year, down from 59.3% two years ago, according to state data.
Through the program, children in households with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty level are eligible for free school meals; children in households with incomes between 130% and 185% of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price school meals and can be charged no more than 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.
"We're really just trying to educate our parents," Osbourn said. "At the end of the day, we're not going to turn a child away for a hot meal, no matter what their balance is."
Act 428 of the 2019 legislative session -- also known as the Hunger-Free Students' Bill of Rights Act -- requires public schools to offer school meal and snack options to students regardless of their account status. Schools also are prohibited from offering students with accounts in arrears a meal or snack different from food served to other students.
The same law prohibits schools from stigmatizing in any way students who are behind in their accounts, such as requiring them to wear a wristband, making them sit in a certain place during mealtime or making their names public.
The law stipulates a district may contact the student's parent or guardian either to attempt collection of the owed money or to request that they apply for meal benefits in a state or federal child nutrition program.
Legislation similar to Act 428 was introduced at the federal level in June.
The School Nutrition Association has advocated for universal free school meals to address the unpaid meal charge problem.
When a Springdale student with a negative balance goes through the lunch line, employees don't mention it to the student. The child receives a meal and parents are contacted, said Gena Smith, the Springdale district's child nutrition director.
If that student wants an extra item not part of the regular meal, such as an additional juice or a bag of chips, they're turned down.
"Our cashiers will tell them, you can get the meal today, but you don't have the funds to purchase an extra item," Smith said.
An anonymous gift this month reduced Springdale's debt by $20,000, according to Rick Schaeffer, district communications director.
"Any time someone wants to donate to help with meal charges, that's a great thing," Smith said. "It's very much appreciated whether it's in Springdale or any other district, because it is a problem."
Some outside organizations and individuals have turned to crowdfunding and private donations to cover meal debts. One group set up a GoFundMe fundraiser this fall for Lowell Elementary School in the Rogers School District. A description of the campaign on the website stated that Lowell Elementary families had compiled $11,000 of meal debt.
That campaign wound up raising $1,430. The Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce also donated $500 this fall to cover meal debt, according to Ashley Siwiec, the Rogers district's communications director.
The Bentonville School District started a campaign two years ago aimed at raising money to offset negative lunch account balances. The Every Kid, Every Day campaign raised about $26,000 last school year, according to Finance Director Janet Schwanhausser.
Most of the money came through a fundraising competition between the district's two high schools, she said. They plan to do that fundraising challenge again for a week starting Feb. 21, with the total being announced at the basketball game between Bentonville High and West High schools on Feb. 28.
The district also accepts donations through its website at BentonvilleK12.org/EveryKidEveryDay. Bentonville plans to advertise Every Kid, Every Day on some of its school buses, using a new logo designed by students in the Ignite digital design and photography program.
Despite the district's fundraising, its collective debt has increased from about $10,000 two years ago to $40,000 today.
Metro on 12/26/2019