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Not-so-secret Santa: Denton attorney pays off middle school lunch balance

Rodney "Rocky" Haire has made a reputation for himself as a tough-talking, personal injury attorney who will make sure you get the money you deserve.

But it was Haire who pulled out his checkbook earlier this week and paid off Strickland Middle School's entire overdue lunch balance, which totaled about $350 for the fall semester.

"I have six kids of my own and the thought of any one of them not being able to have lunch kills me," said Haire, who has law offices in Denton and Dallas. "To have a kid that's having to deal with that regularly, if they're not really strong, that's going to psychologically hurt them."

More than 60 percent of the students at Strickland are on the free or reduced lunch program, but sometimes families still have trouble paying for their child's meal. Since school breakfast and lunch programs are federally funded, schools receive partial reimbursement for each meal they serve, but several districts say the funds aren't enough to cover the gap.

According to national data from the School Nutrition Association, almost half of participating schools said breakfast reimbursements were insufficient, while 46 percent said lunch reimbursements were lacking.

To make sure everyone gets something to eat, Denton ISD allows students to "charge" meals to their account. Parents are notified through courtesy calls once a kid charges a second meal, but nothing is ever taken away, district officials said.

"No child will be turned away, and we do not serve anyone a lesser lunch — none of the cheese sandwiches you hear about," said Chris Bomburger, the district's director of child nutrition. "And, while we make every attempt to work with local families for everyone to pay something, some of our families just simply don't have the funds — especially now."

It's not just Strickland that carries a balance, though. The districtwide deficit sits at $11,392 for the fall semester alone. Some campuses owe less than $15, while others owe nearly $1,800. 

The issue isn't specific to Denton, either. The School Nutrition Association reports that more than three-fourths of school districts that participate in the meal program carry unpaid student debt at the end of the year.

"Some of the households, particularly at Strickland, had balances of $50 or $60," Bomburger said. "As the Christmas season rolls around, [Haire] saw an opportunity and wanted to help out. There are households that really need that extra money during the holiday season. That might mean a gift under the tree."

When Haire first made the donation, he hoped to do it anonymously. But a paralegal at his law office convinced him to come forward, saying it might create a domino effect.

"She said, 'It might make other people do it and then you can really make a big dent in this problem,'" Haire said. "Maybe it will be bigger than Denton ISD. Maybe other school districts will see it and other people will have the idea and run with it."

"The thought of 100,000 kids getting lunch just does it for me," he said. "Hopefully that's where this will go."

Haire said he also hopes his gesture has a lasting impact on the kids who saw their lunch debt disappear in time for the holidays.

"Maybe those kids needs to know that someone went to bat for them," he said. "So maybe when that kid's got money and sees the need, they'll also hook somebody up."

To find out how you can pay down a campus lunch balance, contact Denton ISD child nutrition accountant Beverly Martin at -940-369-0275 or at bmartin2@dentonisd.org.

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.

FEATURED PHOTO: A Strickland Middle School student gets breakfast Wednesday morning at the middle school. Local attorney Rocky Haire paid off Strickland Middle School's overdue lunch balance of approximately $350. More than 60 percent of the school's student population is on free or reduced lunches and several families rely heavily on the school nutrition program to provide meals for their kids. Jake King/DRC