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Jeffco schools to charge fees for online lunch payments

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Jefferson County Public Schools swallowed nearly $500,000 in fees last year related to a program that allows parents to make online deposits to cover the cost of their kids’ lunches.

Starting this fall, the $2 billed each time money is transferred into a student’s account will be charged to their parents.

“The reality is, if we could continue to absorb these costs, we would happily do so,” said the district’s chief operating officer, Steve Bell. “Our alternative was to have higher meal fees, but we have chosen this route because it is cheaper still for our parents.”

The MealpayPlus online deposit service is offered as a convenience to parents. It keeps kids from having to bring a check or cash to school.

MealpayPlus sends e-mail alerts when account balances drop, allows parents to set spending limits and helps to keep track of what their children eat. Those services remain free.

Parents can still avoid the fees by visiting the school with a check or sending cash with the students to put into the account.

When Jefferson County schools started using MealpayPlus about five years ago, the district could afford to absorb the fees, which at the time were smaller. Bell said administrators knew then that they might not always be able to foot the bill.

This year, anticipating declines in the state’s K-12 funding, the district cut $40 million from its budget.

Aurora Public Schools uses a different vendor for a similar program and passes through fees. In Aurora, parents are charged $1 per transaction when they make online payments or deposits using a credit card.

The fee offsets the vendor’s merchant and transaction fees.

“We know some parents don’t have the ability to come into the school all the time to bring in the money,” said APS spokeswoman Georgia Duran.

The cost of the convenience, however, can add up with small deposits. “Some parents pay day-by-day because their kids might not eat school lunch every day,” Duran said.

Douglas County schools and Denver Public Schools have a similar service, but those districts are still allocating a portion of the budget to cover the fees every year.

While the majority of the benefits are geared toward parents, school districts enjoy efficiencies and larger food sales, officials said.

“We don’t have to have people handling money. It’s a lot less work for school staff because it all goes through” MealpayPlus, Bell said.

By Yesenia Robles

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Comments
  • comment avatar Jen B June 20, 2011

    I have a few issues with this.

    1. Mealpay plus does NOT notify you when the balances are low. Many times my son was reminded at school by the lunch lady.
    2. Meal prices went up this year in order to supposedly offer better quality meals in accordance with Mrs. Obama’s school lunch program. My schools menu did not change at all! The quality still sucks! My husband calls the salad a bowl of garbage (which is what it most closely resembles)
    3. If this program is more convenient for the school and has raised their food sales, then why not absorb the cost? Or negotiate a better deal with Mealpay plus.

    Once I heard of the increase in fees, I cancelled my mealpay acct. and I will just send a check for the RARE times I will allow my son to eat the school lunch garbage.

  • comment avatar Mr. David June 20, 2011

    $1 per transaction sounds like a lot of free money. Were I a parent, and I did not feel comfortable having the child deliver the cash, I’d deliver the money to the school myself.

    The kinds of ‘convenience’ charges that businesses like to charge sound a lot like giving away money to businesses who realize that if enough of them tack on a phony fee they can get away with it.

    Of course, I’m sure dealing with the parents, students, as well as the school employees, is a nightmare… funny how a dollar can change all that.

  • comment avatar Liz June 20, 2011

    Does anyone else notice the amount of styrofoam and plastic being used, and subsequently thrown away, in the serving of these school meals? What happened to reusable serving trays and utensils? I thought we were trying to teach kids to reduce, reuse and recycle.

    • comment avatar Tanya June 20, 2011

      Liz- I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m sure it comes down to costs. It costs more to have a staff person loading/unloading and/or washing the dishes than it does to buy styrofoam which is not good for anyone!

  • comment avatar Michael M June 20, 2011

    Just another government double standard. The private sector cannot charge these differential payment fees. The private sector cannot charge more to use a credit card or other forms of online payment. The government charges more however. I have no problem with a consistent policy on payment charges. Government and business should have the same constraints.

    Regardless of the legalities, the policy seems misguided. Electronic payment clearly provides overall lower costs. However, the school district must contract for the processing of electronic payments and cannot reduce its local workforce. A rational policy would be a surcharge on cash and check payments, not electronic payments.

  • comment avatar Mike O June 20, 2011

    It sounds like the MealpayPlus program is a ripoff. They should easily be able to implement an online pay system that is cost effective.

  • comment avatar Jennifer C June 20, 2011

    I really appreciate that Douglas County doesn’t charge a fee to use the online pay system. If they did, I’d go back to sending a check. But from my point of view its also easier on their end to not have to manage the checks and cash.

  • comment avatar Charlie June 20, 2011

    At Cotopaxi, no money changes hands either but we use student numbers and bill the parents. Unfortunately some parents stiff the district requiring us to hire a collection agency. But there is no way we will punish the students for their parents actions. They still get fed and we take a hit.

    The feds recently forced us to raise our rates so this may become more common. 🙁

  • comment avatar Peter C June 20, 2011

    Although the article deals with school funding, it is more to do with Jefferson County leading the State in necessary ways to meet budget constraints without compromising education. The budget minded parent can save a few bucks if they want and if not; the district is not forking it up. Now, if they (JCSD) can save the parents 50% by using Aurora’s vendor.

    Kudos to the Jefferson County School District for thinking outside the box.

  • comment avatar David June 23, 2011

    Who is charging these fees? Sounds like TicketMaster is involved!

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