ASHEVILLE - A Buncombe County principal is getting criticized online for his efforts to get families to pay school lunch debt accumulated during the school year.
Karina Barnes, who has a child at Haw Creek Elementary School, says the school was “lunch shaming” students over unpaid debt, and that Principal Jay Dale threatened to keep students from taking part in the school’s field day if the debt wasn’t paid.
Barnes started a GoFundMe campaign after getting an email from her child’s teacher about the principal's decision.
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The campaign has already raised more than half its $10,000 goal. It has also generated criticism toward the school.
“You’re using the child to collect the debt from the parents,” Barnes said. “You’re using exclusionary practices. You’re threatening to leave kids out of an activity that is for them in order to get a parent to pay a debt to the school.”
In a letter to parents earlier this month, Dale noted the elementary school had more than $600 in unpaid lunch charges for the year.
“We have asked and will continue to ask that you consider completing a free and reduced lunch application as next year you might be surprised to see that you could qualify. If your child’s account has not been settled by the time field day arrives, he or she will not be able to participate,” the letter read.
School officials say that since parents were notified most of the lunch debt at Haw Creek has been paid.
And no student will be prevented from participating in field day activities, said Stacia Harris, director of communications for Buncombe County Schools.
Harris said the principal made it clear if families couldn’t afford to pay their child’s debt, to contact him and the school would work with the family.
“Buncombe County Schools is fortunate to have community partners, such as local churches, who are kind enough to donate money throughout the year to assist families by paying off meal debt,” she said in an emailed statement.
Across the district’s more than 40 schools, outstanding lunch debt was more than $48,000.
“We ask all principals to collaborate with their faculty, staff, and families to work together to find ways to reduce debt by the end of the school year,” Harris said.
The district leaves it up to principals to figure out how best to do that, according to Harris.
The child nutrition department also sends home reminders to families who have lunch debt.
Barnes said she understands that schools must attempt to collect debt owed by families, but she wants a policy that prevents any tactic that threatens to exclude or single out students.
“How is the child responsible for the parents’ action?” she said.
New Mexico recently passed a law that prevents schools from singling students out by making them do chores or giving them an alternate meal because of lunch debt, according to the New York Times.
Harris stressed the principal’s intent was not to punish families.
But some of the people donating to the gofundme site were critical of the school and the principal.
“Such a disgrace. Stop further victimizing children," one person commented. "They do not control their household finances. This should absolutely not be happening in the first world.”
Barnes said she has extended the fundraising effort and wants the money raised to help pay whatever lunch debt is left across the Buncombe County Schools district at the end of the school year.
"Our plan is to continue to raise money until the debt is cleared for the 2016-17 school year," she said. "And we’re also reaching out to other community groups to find out what kind of policy can we change, what can be done to prevent shaming and what can we do to make sure the schools meet their budget in terms of nutrition debt."
School officials, meanwhile, encourage those who are struggling financially to apply for free or reduced priced lunch. They stress that the information is confidential.
More than half of Buncombe County students received free or reduced price lunch during the current school year.