Richard Hyatt: Online school lunch fee is too steep

September 24, 2013 

Parents in Muscogee County who use the computer to buy their child a lunch in the school cafeteria may be paying double because of a surcharge being imposed by a company the school district hired to handle online purchases.

That probably made you gag on your corndog just as it did members of the Muscogee County School Board when they learned that School Payments Solutions is collecting a $2.50 convenience fee every time parents use their service.

Lunches are $2.00 for elementary school children and $2.25 for older students -- a 10-cent increase over last year. If Mom or Dad uses this new service to pay for a meal in the cafeteria, they're being asked to add $2.50 for every transaction.

In a school system in which 31 of the 65 schools serve economically disadvantaged children, such a fee might be the difference between eating and paying, which caused board members to give a homework assignment to staff members.

"They weren't hiding anything. They thought they had a good plan," said board member Cathy Williams. She found herself in a duet with John Wells, who isn't usually in harmony with Williams.

Staff members were presenting a report on the new online vendor and were caught off-guard when board members began to ask pointed questions about the fee.

"They don't get down in the weeds and look at things like the board does. We provide a different lens," Williams said.

School Payments Solutions does business in 19 states. In Georgia, they work with the Atlanta City Schools along with systems in Glynn, Haralson and Muscogee counties. Their site is used to make payments for goods and services provided by the local district. This allows families to use credit or debit cards and keep up to date on their child's lunchroom account.

Cost of the service is absorbed by the "parent-user" in most school districts, according to the company website. "This cost structure allows the school districts to offer the service, where otherwise could not afford the service offering."

The amount of the fee was set by agreement between the vendor and the local school system. Williams believes the board should have been involved.

At the September meeting, the board asked for more information so it could decide how much of that fee should be absorbed by the parent and how much the district could afford.

"Do we pay? Do we split? Do we shop for another vendor," Williams said. "We need more data before we can have a good conversation on those issues."

This fee may be the price of doing business, but for families that are struggling, it could be overwhelming. So until the board can refigure this pricey surcharge, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches might be in order.

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906@knology.net.

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