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Cherry Hill school district rejects a Philly businessman’s offer to wipe out students’ lunch debts

Cherry Hill says those parents who can afford to pay their outstanding fees should do so. Meanwhile, state lawmakers are drafting legislation to expand free meals to thousands of New Jersey public school students.

Two New Jersey lawmakers want to expand the state's free school meals program and require the state to pay for breakfast or lunch for students who qualify for reduced price meals.
Two New Jersey lawmakers want to expand the state's free school meals program and require the state to pay for breakfast or lunch for students who qualify for reduced price meals.Read moreEzume Images / MCT

A retired Philadelphia businessman offered to help Cherry Hill solve its school-lunch debt problem, but the school district said it will not accept donations to wipe out thousands of dollars in unpaid meal fees.

Steve Ravitz stepped in after the district made national news in August because of its policy to give students with outstanding fees tuna fish sandwiches for lunch instead of the regular hot meals served daily. In a Facebook post in September, Ravitz wrote: “I would be happy to solve this issue.”

A former Cherry Hill resident and owner of a chain of ShopRite stores in South Jersey, Ravitz on Wednesday again expressed a willingness to help.

“I never heard from anybody,” said Ravitz, who now lives in Philadelphia. “I gave up."

In a statement Thursday, school district spokesperson Barbara Wilson said: “We are not accepting donations toward the debt.”

The district has previously said it believes some parents who have outstanding lunch bills have the ability to pay. About 20 percent of Cherry Hill’s 11,000 students are eligible for reduced-price or free meals.

On Wednesday, two state lawmakers announced plans to introduce legislation that would require the state to pick up the cost of reduced-price breakfast or lunch for public school students, roughly $4.5 million annually.

“It’s critically important that children have access to regular and nutritious meals while at school, but … for many families the financial burden is too great,” Assembly Speaker Craig Couglin (D., Middlesex) said in a statement.

Statewide, New Jersey schools annually serve about 225,000 free or reduced breakfasts and 400,000 free or reduced lunches.

It’s unclear how many Cherry Hill parents with outstanding fees at the end of the 2018-19 school year were eligible for reduced meals. Officials have cited a $14,343 meal debt incurred by about 343 students.

There have been offers to help erase the outstanding debt. But the district has said it would not accept donations because of the likelihood that the debt would then recur.

Ravitz, who lived in Cherry Hill for more than 40 years, said he had hoped to work with “one or two donors to put this issue to sleep.” His fourth-generation family business operates two ShopRite stores in Cherry Hill.

“Simply erasing the debt does not address the many families with financial means who have just chosen not to pay what is owed,” school Superintendent Joseph Meloche and Board President Eric Goodwin said in a statement.

There is precedent. After a public outcry, the Wyoming Valley West School District in northeastern Pennsylvania agreed to accept a donation from Todd Carmichael, owner of Philadelphia-based La Colombe coffee, to erase a $22,467 lunch debt.

The Cherry Hill School Board approved changes to the district’s unpaid fees policy on Tuesday. The rules allow students to select a hot meal, but prohibits those with overdue accounts from participating in extracurricular activities such as the prom, dances, and school trips until their bill is paid.

Lunch costs $3 at elementary and middle schools and $3.10 at the two high schools in Cherry Hill. Under the changes, students still get a meal when their debt reaches $10. When it reaches $25, parents must be contacted to discuss the outstanding balance and any financial needs. If the debt reaches $75, a parent must attend a mandatory meeting with school officials. Until the bill is paid, students will be prohibited from extracurricular activities, except athletics.

The new policy will apply to students with lunch debt from the previous school year, according to Lynn E. Shugars, an assistant superintendent for business. The current outstanding balance for unpaid meal balances has reached $16,445.82 this year, she said.