"These are unbudgeted expenses that the school district faces."
Some parents and caregivers were caught off guard this week when G.C. Hawley Middle School said in an email that unless a student's lunch bill is paid, they will be excluded from certain end-of-year "fun" school events.
"It's teaching the kids that they don't get to participate if they don't have money," Stephanie Gerardi said.
Principal Dr. Kerry Chisnall said the school has 40-50 students that owe unpaid lunch funds.
"These amounts vary from $1 to $241 in some instances," Chisnall said. "However, the sum total owed is large and unfortunately the cafeteria folks bill the school, meaning I have to use funds intended for supporting staff and students to pay student lunch bills."
Although the school can exclude students with unpaid lunch funds from participating in end-of-year school events, that's not the desired outcome, according to Granville County Schools associate superintendent Stan Winborne.
"We may, in fact, exclude some children from participating in some of these fun activities into the year until we've heard from parents," Winborne said. "It's just an effort to try to encourage our families to help us take care of these bills so that our local taxpayers don't have to rely on clearing this up. These are unbudgeted expenses that the school district faces."
Durham Public Schools said they have a district-wide outstanding balance of $343,000.
"It's not as concerning because it's where we've been in the past and we're pretty standard," director of school nutrition services James Keaten said.
While the school district is capable of covering negative balances for the school year out of general funds, Keaten said they'd like to keep the balance as low as possible.
"We don't want that to have to impact things such as the needs that the district has just use that support money in other areas," Keaten said.
In Wake County, the school system said if a student reaches their allowable maximum charge limit, an official finds a way for the student to be able to take their chosen breakfast/lunch.
"If the school has funds in an "Angel" account, they will use that fund to pay for the meal for the student and when necessary, the student will instead be given an alternate meal that consists of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, at no cost," WCPSS said.
Faith-based organizations across the Triangle have also chipped in with donations to help take care of some of these accounts, including in Granville County.
Winborne said they're happy to accommodate, such as waiving some fees for hardships or offering payment plans to families in need.
"I know that it's difficult making the family budget work and we are always willing to work with families and try to help them through these times," Winborne said. "We want to make sure that our children are happy and well-fed and able to finish the school year strong.