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Bethlehem Area School Board approves collection efforts for student lunch and tuition debt

Brittany Sweeney

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Bethlehem Area School District will try to collect on debt owed by students and former employees.

At a school board meeting last week, administrators said the district has $768,539 in outstanding debt.

That includes $264,000 in school lunch debt and $147,000 in tuition payments for advanced degrees to now ex-employees. It’s also owed $332,539 in facility use fees, tuition and other debt, and $25,000 for technology.

The discussion centered on what kind of strategy the district should use to try to recoup some of the past due accounts.

Board members agreed that going after ex-employees for unpaid tuition was the first place to start. They also discussed the type of third-party collection agency they wanted to use.

District Business Manager Frank Pearn and human resources staff said just 37 former personnel owed the college debt, which could be tens of thousands of dollars per person.

Employees seeking higher education degrees reduce their tuition debt to the school district 25% each year they work after completing the course.

When the staff member leaves with an unpaid balance, he or she agrees to a payment plan.

“For example, we have some people that have been on a payment plan for thousands of dollars and are only paying $50 a month," Pearn said. "They'll never pay that off.

“And, for example, we recently had an employee leave toward the middle of 2023 with a $13,000 balance and we have not received a penny on that yet.

"So while we do have our emails, and we try to track people, and we try to get them down, these are the ones that are the problem.”

Collection may be difficult

With the debt dating to 2015, some board members said they were concerned some of it may need to be written off.

Outstanding dining services accounts could range between $1 and $1,000. Director M. Rayah Levy said some of the smaller lunch debt might not be worth pursuing.

"Trying to collect that money is going to be somewhat difficult.”
Bethlehem Area School Board member M. Rayah Levy

“It's difficult with the school loan situation and trying to get money from parents, because there was a reason why, perhaps, that they're lagging behind and they're unable to pay,” she said.

“And so trying to collect that money is going to be somewhat difficult.”

School board President Michael Facinetto and Vice President Shannon Patrick said they supported going after families with high amounts of school lunch debt.

'More than a year's worth of food'

The district has made an effort to contact parents whose children may qualify for the free or reduced lunch program and get them signed up, which cuts down the number of children unable to pay for lunch every day.

“When you're talking $500 or $1,000 or more for students, I know we had a few that were up that high at one point, that's just abusing the system because that's more than a year's worth of food.”
BASD School Board President Michael Facinetto

“When you're talking $500 or $1,000 or more for students, I know we had a few that were up that high at one point, that's just abusing the system,” he said. “Because that's more than a year's worth of food.”

Pennsylvania’s school lunch debt is nearly $79 million, according to the Education Data Initiative, a website of education data collected by researchers.

The data showed there are currently 437,340 food-insecure children statewide. National public school meal debt adds up to $262 million annually.

Bethlehem schools Superintendent Jack Silva said the administration will enlist a collection agency that would not charge a fee unless funds are recovered.

Staff said they would bring recommendations back to the school board.