WOBURN - It's a puzzling phenomenon.

Though acknowledging outstanding student cafeteria bills had climbed to a new record of $70,000 weeks prior, the School Committee shortly after the COVID-19 contagion crossed into Woburn last spring declared a halt to the approved practice of referring arrears accounts to third-party debt collectors.

Given the moratorium, school officials had every reason to suspect that the debt would remain largely undressed until the COVID-19 emergency was over. Instead, as discovered during a recent School Commitee meeting in the Joyce Middle School, quite the opposite happened.

"It's down to $26,000…It's amazing," said Chisholm, who chairs the board's Finance Subcommitee.

"It was as high as $70,000 at one point," Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Dr. Michael Baldassarre later chimed in. "[Our staff] has been working with families to get that debt down. They did a great job."

Since at least 2014, when the total amount of unpaid lunch bills totaled some $9,000, local officials have struggled almost annually to manage the problem of chronic cafteria debt. Having mixed results over the years, the unexpected payoffs is perhaps most baffling because it came at a time when families were expected to be least able to address the arrears accounts.

Specifically, after schools were shuttered in late March to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, former Assistant Superintendent for Finance Joseph Elia and Finance Subcommittee members recommended the imposition of a moratorium on referring arrears lunch accounts to third-party collection agencies.

The action, taken in the early days of a months-long shutdown of all "non-essential" businesses across the state, was enacted as School Committee members acknowledged that hundreds of out-work household heads found themselves struggling to pay their mortgages and rents.

The move also came as Woburn administrators, witnessing first-hand the scale of the shutdown's economic repercussions, began providing free take-home meals to any citizen who asked as buses delivered the food on a daily basis to preset drop-off spots.

"We've taken the position that if senior [citizens] come to these buses, we're giving them a lunch. We're not turning anybody away," stated Elia matter-of-factly at the time.

Ultimately, the city's cafeteria workers ended-up working through the summer, preparing tens-of-thousands of meals for citizens with no questions asked. In total, that extra service was provided for all 192 days that the city's schools were shuttered between March and the recent start of a new academic year on Sept. 21.

New Assistant Superintendent for Finance Robert Alconada earlier this month explained that after a brief break on the delivery service — taken in order to handle the return of pupils at local schools — those offsite deliveries will resume.

Fortunately, thanks to the federal government, which late last spring agreed to foot the full bill for the city's meal service, the school district will continue providing take-home meals without charge until the end of December.

According to School Committee member Dr. John Wells, he suspects that parents have been able to chip away at outstanding lunch debts due because meals are now being offered free to students with no questions asked.

"We're hoping because everybody is getting a free lunch until Dec. 31 that people who have debt will continue to pay it off a little bit at a time," Wells explained.

"Most of the debt is $10 [here] or $8 [there]. A lot of it is just a little money," Chisholm later elaborated.

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