ALAMANCE COUNTY, N.C. (WXII) -- Parents in the Alamance-Burlington School System are raising money after a school said children will be excluded from a Valentine's Day dance if they have lunch debt.

"We do understand this may be disappointing to the community to hear this news, but we have no alternative to recoup those funds," Les Atkins, the school district's public information officer, said regarding parents' concerns.

On Friday, Jan. 26, South Mebane Elementary sent a newsletter that told parents that students with lunch debts could not go to the Valentine's Day dance scheduled for Feb. 9.

"That just didn't sit well with me," Ashley McKenna, a parent, told WXII. "It's my opinion that the students don't owe anything. They don't have to work for the food that they should be provided."

So, McKenna set up a GoFundMe to cover those families' outstanding debt.

"I didn't want them to feel excluded or ashamed around something that was not their fault," McKenna said.

McKenna set a goal to raise $3,000. That covered the amount of debt South Mebane Elementary's newsletter had divulged several months ago. Although the GoFundMe has reached that amount, McKenna does not know if it covers all of the debt to today's date.

So, she said, she plans to leave the fundraiser open until the school confirms how much lunch debt there is.

Any excess donations will go to other schools' lunch debts, McKenna said.

In total, the entire Alamance-Burlington School System has $59,000 in debt from unpaid school lunches this year, according to Atkins. Some students' families have racked up $300 in debt individually this year, Atkins said. He told WXII the problem lies in the fact that ABSS lunches are a self-sufficient program, not funded by local taxes.

ABSS still feeds students when they don't bring money, though. Instead, Atkins said, the school will notify parents about the federal free and reduced lunch form.

ABSS also has community partners, which sometimes help cover debt, with various fundraisers.

Atkins said this lunch debt accumulations happens every year.

"We've done the same thing in the past, I'm not exactly sure why this made news this particular time," he said. "But at the end of the day, all of the debts must be cleared by next school year." He said at the end of the year, the USDA will not allow ABSS to carry debt into the next year.

The problem has gotten worse since 2020.

"In the COVID year, everyone ate for free, so when students came back to school, it was somewhat of a shock when students had to start paying again," Atkins said. "We try to remove any barriers to [parents] completing the forms [...] so their child can eat for free."

"I don't blame the school," McKenna said. "I know educators are in a really tough spot right now. We have clearly underfunded education [...] But I don't think this was the appropriate consequence."

McKenna said she was glad to see teachers support her GoFundMe, and that a school in Burlington even offered to help cover any outstanding debt the fundraiser does not pay.

But, "I don't think fundraising is the answer," McKenna said. "This is just a band-aid on a bigger issue right now [...] I hope this brings attention to the need to fund education and make sure our children are taken care of."

"I just want parents to know this is our community. We need to take some ownership and responsibility and take care of the children that live here," she said.

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