STEWARTVILLE — Hot lunches for every student, regardless of their ability to pay. That was the biggest change made to the Stewartville Public Schools' unpaid meal charges policy Monday night at the Stewartville School Board meeting.

The new policy replaced the old one passed Oct. 10 that was meant to address the $10,000 shortfall due to unpaid meal balances on student accounts. However, that policy led to students having meals taken from them when their meal accounts reached a negative balance.

"I support these proposed changes, and I believe that they will be adopted tonight," said Board Chairman Rob Mathias. "When this (Oct. 10) policy was proposed, I can assure you that no board member thought that the policy would result in any shaming of any Stewartville student."

Mathias said the board as a whole takes responsibility for the consequences of the policy it enacted in October.

"We offer our deepest and sincere apology to any student or family that was affected by the actions of the district," he said.

Before the school board meeting, there was a public comment period where several individuals expressed their dissatisfaction with the Oct. 10 policy.

The district had also solicited responses online through the district website. Superintendent Belinda Selfors said the district had received between 250 and 260 online comments.

"There were a lot of different suggestions, and they ran the gamut," Selfors said. "From 'Don't use my tax dollars to feed kids lunch, my tax dollars are for salaries, supplies, maintenance,' all the way over to 'Every child should have a free lunch.'"

Selfors said the comments online were definitely helpful, and included such ideas as not having the cashiers or others discuss the balances with students directly.

The new policy, in addition to not refusing any student a hot meal at lunch, keeps discussions about account balances between the district administration and parents, includes texts, phone calls, emails and letters as ways to contact parents about balances, and restricts students with negative balances only from buying a la carte snack items that are not part of the USDA healthy lunch guidelines.

"The majority of the changes are to ensure students have access to a school lunch, and notifications are handled directly with parents," Selfors said.

Another change to the policy is that at a negative $75 in a student's account, the district would have the option to send the matter to a collection agency.

"We'd work with the family first," she said, adding the district would try to help families sign up for free or reduced lunches and set up a payment plan. "The collection agency is the last resort. What we really want to do is find ways that are sustainable and ongoing to help families in need."

Selfors said amid the online responses were about 90 individuals who said they wanted to find ways to support kids in the community with donations.

"I think there are families in need in this community, that need support," she said.

A GoFundMe page set up to raise money for Stewartville school lunches raised $9,685. Megan Romens, who set up the online account, posted online that the campaign was ending because the fundraising goal had been met via online donations and direct donations to the school district. Romens had set a goal of raising $20,000.

In other business, the district approved the concept of moving ahead with the process of gathering information on a proposed tax abatement for the Sprouts Child Care and Early Learning Center. The district will hold a public hearing on the tax abatement at 6:30 p.m., Dec. 18.

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