Kan. Parents sent collection notices after confusing pandemic-era fees

Auburn-Washburn district says parents confused by billing practice

By RACHEL MIPRO
Kansas Reflector

TOPEKA — Parents in the Auburn-Washburn School District in South Topeka say they were unfairly sent debt collection letters after a billing confusion during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the 2021-2022 school year, schools operated with a different financial aid process. Normally, students are eligible for financial aid under the Free and Reduced Meals Program. With the federal government offering free lunches to all, the Auburn-Washburn School District instead used a household economic survey. Students who qualify for free lunch receive a fee waiver, and students who qualify for reduced lunch prices are expected to receive reduced fees.

Melissa Westcott said she was shocked by the amount she was charged. She and her husband received debt collection letters for her two stepchildren and her son, who has special needs, for the last school year.

Westcott’s family qualified for a fee reduction, but said none of their charges were reduced. Westcott said the district told him during the 2021-2022 school year that the amount owed would be automatically updated in the school district’s online system, which did not happen. When she contacted the school, they told her that everything would be updated before the next school year.

“As far as I’m concerned, I did my due diligence there, you know, I have all my paperwork,” Westcott said. “The next thing we know is that we get a collection letter in the mail for each child. And we say to ourselves, what, the school directed us towards the collections? They didn’t even call us or write or warn us or anything like that.

The Westcotts sent another letter disputing the charges and received no response.

Martin Weishaar, director of communications for the district, said the district is trying to work with families as much as possible on billing issues.

“The vast majority of fees are paid by families in a timely manner,” Weishaar said in a statement to Kansas Reflector. “Fees are usually paid as you go, but all fees must be paid before the end of the school year. The Auburn-Washburn School District has been and continues to be willing to work with families who have questions or documentation indicating a discrepancy with outstanding fee balances.

Westcott said she felt frustrated with the situation, especially since school officials could not explain the discrepancy. This year, all children in their household are entitled to free meals and waiver of registration fees.

“That’s great, but why should we pay the full entry fee from last year? Even with documented evidence, should it be reduced? Westcott said. “I want to get a lawyer, but you know, it’s kind of ridiculous to hire a lawyer and pay $1,500 for a $400 bill. I think they know it. So they just do what they want. That’s really what it feels like.

Amy Burns, another school district mother, said her children were entitled to free or reduced lunches, but she received multiple debt collection notices for the full amount since around 2018. Although she said that she usually contacted the school about billing, she always ended up paying the full amount. Because she works full time, Burns said, she didn’t have time to go to court on the matter.

“You expect not to be charged, then all of a sudden you do, and then you call to try to follow up and you get no response,” Burns said. “Then the next thing you know you have a collection agency coming after you. I’ve been through a lot in my life. It’s taken a long time to get to where I am and have my credit where it’s at. So for them, it’s potentially frustrating when I’ve been told I don’t have to pay anything upfront.

Weishaar said parents were likely confused by the lull in billing.

The director of communications said that at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, the district had $250,000 in outstanding fee balances accrued from the 2019-2022 school years. The district suspended debt collection early in the pandemic and did not send outstanding fees to a collection agency for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.

“Now that meals have to be paid for again, we believe families will have a better understanding of their school sales,” Weishaar said. “We are also committed to reviewing our notification process to ensure parents are well informed of their balance status.”

Kansas Association of School Boards spokeswoman Kristin Magette said the organization hasn’t tracked issues with fees, but was not aware of fee rates or changes in fees. collecting in Kansas districts after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Kansas schools have collected fees for decades to supplement state funding and meet budgetary needs for student learning and operation,” Magette said in an email. “There is no statewide standard for tuition because local needs and budgets vary widely.”

The Kansas State Department of Education also does not track tuition or tuition debt.

Westcott said the 2021-2022 school year was the only time she and her husband were charged these fees. Every two years they were removed.

“It was this year when everyone ate free that we had to pay for everything – apart from the food of course,” she said. “So it was like that year that we had to pay those registration fees. Never had to pay in the past and we are not paying for this year. No one can explain or tell me why that year was so different.

Westcott said she has spoken to other parents with similar accusations and believes the district is focusing on people who don’t have the time or money to fight.

“It seems like they’re targeting a certain demographic of people, and it’s usually low-income women, single women with kids,” Westcott said. “So it’s like they know they’re probably going to be in a rush for money. And not able to pay it. And so they will receive this money in full plus interest.

Cover image courtesy of Pixabay

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