ILLUSTRATION BY DEBORAH ANN TRIPOLDI/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

The Montclair Public Schools’ central office claims that the school district has a six-figure lunch balance deficit.

But many parents say that the balance is inflated because families are being repeatedly billed for meals that their children never ordered or billed on days when their children were not even in school.

School district records showed that, as of June 30, an estimated 1,500 students had accrued negative meal balances totaling just over $100,000 for the 2016-2017 school year.

In response to the publication of this data, several parents claimed, in comments on the Montclair Local’s Facebook page, that they had been incorrectly billed for lunches that their children had not purchased.

Board President Laura Hertzog said on Friday that she had received a number of phone calls from parents on the subject. Hertzog said it was her understanding that when a parent disputed a charge on their child’s lunch account, the charge would be deleted.

But parents on social media reported that balances would appear for as long as five years and that their requests to fix the problem have been ignored.

Hertzog said that the district is trying to determine the cause of the disputed charges.

“I would encourage people who feel that they’ve been inappropriately billed to contact the district,” she said.

Montclair is in the process of switching food service vendors. Until July 1, Chartwell’s was the district’s food service provider. The district recently entered into a contract with a new vendor, Pomptonian, and Hertzog said district officials would be discussing the specifics of the point-of-sale systems with them.

With the previous system, each student was given an ID number to present at the cash register; Hertzog said that the students she knew would memorize the number, while others would have it written down.

When an ID number is entered in the system, the computer is supposed to bring up the student’s name and photo, so the cashier knows that the lunch is being charged to the correct student.

Parent reactions

Jamie Salek has two sons, both of whom attend Charles H. Bullock School. “My oldest has been there three years. Since he started, I’ve been dealing with this. When my second son started school there last year, same problem,” Salek said.

Salek said that sometimes she would be told that there was a negative balance, sometimes as small as 75 cents and sometimes as much as $40 or more. She said that she tried to contest the balance, but always had to pay, except on one occasion, when her older son was charged for buying lunch on a day when he was out sick from school. Salek said the school subtracted that one charge and estimated that a student had accidentally given the wrong ID number, or the cashier typed in the wrong ID number.

“Sometimes I send my son to school with cash to buy a lunch. No matter what he goes in with, he says the lunch lady just takes it all and doesn’t give change. One time I sent him in with a $10 bill,” Salek claimed.

Barrie Dnistrian is the parent of two children in the schools.

“I have called and emailed the school district on multiple occasions regarding these balances. I’ve never received a response and I refuse to pay the balances because I know that these charges were improper,” Dnistrian said in an email. “As a result, my children have not purchased lunch at school for the last two years (not that they mind given the poor quality), and the balances remain on their accounts.”

One mother of a Hillside student, who asked not to be identified, said that starting in the spring of 2015, her family began receiving charges for a meal that her son had not eaten. She asked the district to zero out the charges. On one occasion, she said, she was told that a paraprofessional had asked a food service cashier to provide her son with a lunch because he had forgotten his lunch. But she disputed that story, saying that she was volunteering in the school that day and that her son had brought his lunch.

Two commenters on Montclair Local’s Facebook page said they were interested in paying off unpaid balances for children whose families can’t afford to pay off their lunch debt.

The crowdfunding site GoFundMe shows dozens of lunch-debt campaigns in cities and towns across the country. One of them was recently started by a Summit teenager to pay the lunch debts of schoolchildren in Newark.