School lunch debt collection ban proposed

School districts would be barred from contracting with debt collection agencies to collect students’ outstanding lunch or breakfast debt under a measure considered by the Education Committee Jan. 23.

Sen. Danielle Conrad
Sen. Danielle Conrad

LB855, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad, also would prohibit school districts from assessing or collecting interest, fees or other monetary penalties for outstanding debts on a student’s school lunch or breakfast account.

Conrad said she doesn’t believe the practice of using collection agencies for school lunch or breakfast debt is widespread in Nebraska, but that some families in Lincoln have been turned over to collections for outstanding lunch bills as low as $20. 

“When families are living on the edge — and these are the families who can’t pay their school meal debt — and they get turned over to collections, it really starts to spiral for them,” Conrad said. 

Many families cannot afford legal counsel, Conrad said, and a default judgment on school lunch debt will impact their credit report, which could impede their ability to rent housing.

Katie Nungesser testified in support of the measure on behalf of Voices for Children in Nebraska. School meal costs have risen in recent years, Nungesser said, and families who are just above the qualifying threshold to receive free or reduced lunch have struggled to stay on top of the expense. 

Chase Boyd of Omaha also testified in favor of the bill. During his fourth-grade year, Boyd said, his family was impacted by the 2008 recession and their financial difficulties resulted in lunch debt. 

One day in the lunch line, Boyd said a school nutrition worker told him to tell his parents that he had an overdue bill. Boyd said he was left to wonder if eating lunch was hurting his family. 

“It is my belief that no child should have to go through or experience what I did,” Boyd said. “The embarrassment that I felt that day should be no child’s cross to bear.”

Stephen Grizzle, superintendent of South Central Nebraska Unified School District #5, testified in opposition to the bill. While he appreciated the measure’s intent, Grizzle said families may stop paying for school meals if there are no consequences, which could lead to a significant loss of revenue for school districts.

“I feel like this is another example of a bill being passed that’s requiring the school districts to pick up more and more costs,” Grizzle said. “[Schools] also get accused of spending too much money and being the sole reason for high property taxes.”

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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