By Katina Caraganis
TOWNSEND -- Dennis Moore, Ashby representative to the North Middlesex Regional School Committee, is questioning whether the policy committee can impose a policy that withholds report cards and prohibits students from graduation if they have an outstanding school lunch balance.
Moore, who served on the committee for many years before stepping away from it six years ago, said he doesn't believe it is legal to assess restrictions like that on the student body.
The proposed policy is currently up for review by the public on the district's website. It states that on a weekly basis, the food-services director will generate a charge balance report. All the accounts that are nearing a zero balance or have gone into the negative will be flagged, and the list will go to all building principals.
After the charge amount exceeds $10, the policy reads, a letter will be sent home to the parent or guardian of the student. If there are factors that affect a family's ability to pay, the district will help them apply for free or reduced meal status.
If there are no outstanding factors that prohibit them from paying and the family makes no effort to make payments to reduce the bill, one or more of the following actions may be taken, unless prohibited by state law:
* Delayed issuance of report cards and transfer cards until the obligation is met.
* Prohibited participation of the student in any future fee-based programs until or unless outstanding balances are resolved.
* No student participation in senior activities or graduation exercises.
* Referral to small-claims court, collections and/or any other appropriate state agency.
"Speaking as one person out of nine, I have a problem with it. We never had anything like that when I was on the board previously," he said.
Moore said when he was on the committee before, he helped to draft a policy book, and doesn't remember having anything like that in there. He did, however, acknowledge that with changes in education-reform laws since he last served, things could have changed.
"That was sort of what I was calling upon when I said that, ancient history that was buried in my mind," he said. "I wanted the committee to have the opportunity to look into it before it put something in place. For me, it's better to pause."
Jonna Clermont, vice chairman of the School Committee, said while she fully supports getting reimbursed for charged lunches, she doesn't like the idea of penalizing students for a parent responsibility.
She said ideally, the subject should be investigated further to see if this has been an ongoing issue for years or if it became more prevalent once an outside organization took over running the food services for the district.
"I'd like to know what the percentage is of students who aren't paying for their lunches. Is it mostly high-school kids or is it a combination?" she said. "I'm not sure if there needs to be more outreach. What more can we be doing? To hold a report card is too punitive."