Indiana school district refuses to excuse textbook fines during COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused many students to have to learn virtually – which means, parents have had to try to adopt alternative schedules to be home to help. This, of course, is not always possible, and families who’ve lost incomes are struggling to make ends meet. That’s why it’s appalling to hear one Indiana school district has already filed almost 300 lawsuits seeking unpaid textbook fees.
The district sends warning letters, followed by court summons should a parent not submit payment. One mother, Hannah Watts of Mishawaka, Indiana, received a reminder in the mail in January for $701.56 outstanding from 2019 and decided she’d wait to use her tax refund to pay it off in the spring. She planned to take care of her debt within a few months. Two months later, however, Watts, a dental assistant, had her hours drastically reduced due to the pandemic. She had no choice but to use her refund to cover household expenses.
On August 7, a notice appeared on her door. School City of Mishawaka, the public district her three children attend, was filing a lawsuit. Watts reached out to the firm representing it and made arrangements to pay the balance in two installments. She was assured the matter would be taken care of as long as the debt was paid by her court date, September 14. Records indicate $400 was pulled from her account on the 26th of that month and $301.56 cleared on September 14. However, she was still required to attend the hearing, and a default judgment was entered against her for attorney fees and court costs of $348.83. She hadn’t anticipated paying additional fees after her debt was resolved.
A Mishawaka schools spokesperson said, “The judgment was entered against Watts because, though she paid the balance of the textbook fees online on the date of the hearing, she didn’t pay the attorney fees of $233.83 that had been added to her account.”
“I recognize the fact it’s my responsibility to pay, and I should have had it paid on time,” Watts said of the book fees. “But my issue is now I have attorney and court fees when I did exactly what they asked.”
School City of Mishawaka said it was “confident Watts had been notified about the attorney fees.” However, it later announced it would “forgive the fees and seek to vacate the judgment against her.” This decision didn’t come until December 8.
In July alone, records show School City of Mishawaka filed 202 textbook lawsuits. An additional 80 followed in August. A total of 294 have been filed thus far, which equates to 5% of the school’s enrollment. Online court documents reveal at least 38 Indiana districts have been listed as plaintiffs in small claims lawsuits since January 2020, and Mishawaka has filed the most cases since the onset of COVID-19 in March.
Judy Fox, head of the Economic Justice Clinic at the University of Notre Dame, said, “Suing parents for book fees, especially amid the pandemic, when covering rent and groceries may already be a struggle, can set off a chain reaction of negative outcomes. If courts rule in favor of school districts, they can garnish parents’ wages. That could lead to evictions, leaving families struggling to find housing at a time when staying home is essential. And unpaid bills sent to collection agencies may surface on background reports used by landlords to screen potential tenants. It’s just a vicious, vicious cycle.”
However, Alex Newman, chief financial officer of School City of Mishawaka, responded, “The district debated whether to pursue unpaid fees over the summer. It ultimately decided to file the suits because the fees dated back to the fall of 2019 and were originally due in November of last year, before the pandemic.” He added, “We looked at the data. There was no drastic increase in terms of the number of families, or the number of cases, or the amount, and so we decided to move forward.”