SLIDELL- When a "Cafeteria Zero Balance Event" flyer was sent home with students at Whispering Forest Elementary this week, promoting gym time with "hula-hoops, basketball and other games" for students whose lunch bills were paid in full, it left parents like Noel Estes stunned.
"I read it and was like no this can't be, they can't do that," she said.
The flyer quickly went from school bags to social media where a parent from Covington Elementary posted a similar flyer, also from this week, promoting a picnic lunch reward for children whose parents had paid their lunch, before and after care bills in full. Mandeville Junior High students received a flyer for a "PBiS Reward Mystery Reward Event" allowing attendance only if students had not received any disciplinary infractions between this week and Dec. 19, library fees of $5 or more were paid by Dec. 15 and lunch bills of $10 or more were paid by Dec. 15.
Widespread outrage soon followed online.
"How can you sit here and say a child has to be held accountable for their parents when a child can't even get a job until you're 16-years-old?" asked Randy Kakumei, a public school parent and founder of STP Helps Facebook Page, "And if this whole concept is based off of money, what does a 9-year-old third grader have to do with money?"
Though dozens of parents expressed anger over this issue on social media, at least two turned that anger into action for overdue bills at their children's schools.
In a matter of hours, the online fundraising pages posted to the STP Helps Facebook page brought in almost $2,500.
At the same time, the St. Tammany School District canceled all events in relation to collecting unpaid balances saying it wanted to "evaluate feedback and clarify guidelines with our principals at an already scheduled meeting next week."
"I was very glad that we got attention and that there are other ways to do or accomplish this without having to leave kids out," said Estes.
Superintendent Trey Folse said in a statement, "We appreciate the generous spirit of our community who consistently supports our school system and students. We will continue to work with our parents and community members to find the best opportunities to provide their support. We are gathering feedback from parents and school administrators to determine guidelines of how to best move forward with collecting meal balances while continuing to meet the needs of all of our students, families, and schools."
The statement continues, "Our district currently offers anyone who has difficulty paying their fees a free and reduced lunch application or help to pay off their balance. If a parent or guardian is experiencing a hardship or struggling to keep up with their child's meal account, we encourage them to reach out to their school for help. Our district prides itself on educating and meeting the needs of every child, every day. No child in the St. Tammany Parish Public School System has ever been or will be denied a school meal."
People in the community say this is an example of turning a problem into something positive by simply working together.
"Come together, focus on something that we see there's a problem with, and try to fix it," said Kakumei, "Chances are we'll always, 100% always, be able to fix it and it's simply because we decided to work together."
The district says it will continue to work with the organizers of the fundraisers and the schools involved to determine how to handle the money that has already been collected.
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