By Cecily Walters 2015-01-06 03:06:16
Pay It Forward Four K-12 school nutrition directors share their experiences with online payment technologies. Tools to prep the food you serve in your operation are important, of course, but what’s also essential is how those meals are accounted and paid for. Paying for school meals has come a long way from the days students had just one option: cash. Cash presents risks of theft by bullies and opportunists, as well as added accounting and administrative burdens. Many school nutrition programs now turn to online payment systems to reduce cash transactions, finding them to be intuitive, secure, time-saving tools for staff and parents alike. Here, operators from districts of varying sizes across the country discuss the features they value most about the technologies they’re using and offer some tips for introducing a new, unfamiliar system. Chandler (Ariz.) Unified School District CUSD Food and Nutrition Director Wesley Delbridge, RD, has reason to consider his department’s use of a meal payment system a success: Last school year, for the first time, CUSD’s online revenue from meals was higher than its in-person revenue (53% online vs. 47% in person). He attributes this to the growing acceptance of MyLunchMoney, an online payment system provided by Heartland School Solutions that his operation began using in 2012. “It’s been fantastic to use; it pretty much runs itself,” Delbridge reports. MyLunchMoney’s features include 24-hour account access, payment by credit card or electronic check, the ability to split payments between multiple children on the same family account and email notifications when the account balance drops below an amount set by the user. Probably the “coolest feature,” asserts Delbridge, trumps the simple notification feature and allows users to set an automatic payment when the balance hits a certain level. The software includes a mobile app, though CUSD developed its own custom app before it launched MyLunchMoney. It incorporates a link that allows CUSD Food app users to connect directly with MyLunchMoney. The ability to access online payments via the district’s custom app meets a real need for parents in his community, says Delbridge, pointing to data that shows parents often use it mornings before school to check on the amounts in their children’s accounts. A major purchase influencer was that MyLunchMoney “talks” directly to the CUSD’s existing point-of-sale (POS) system. Delbridge also appreciates that Heartland worked with CUSD staff on a strategy for handling credit card convenience fees. They determined a generic convenience fee that parents would pay, no matter the amount that was added to a child’s account. “We were one of the first districts to work with them on this, and we came up with $1.95, which matched the transaction fees that most credit card companies look for. Because they were willing to work with us, it saved us a ton of money,” Delbridge recounts. CUSD parents have indicated that they value the security of using the online payment system; they can be sure that money is definitely added and that their children didn’t lose cash or checks sent with them to school. Delbridge adds that, in the future, he hopes for added functionality that would allow a maximum spending limit per day per child and possibly the ability for parents to set a restriction on the types of food their students could purchase. “Assess your system before you change it,” Delbridge advises other school nutrition operators considering such technology for the first time. “Survey parents to find out what they’re looking for.” This technology innovator also suggests determining the key features and functions that are most important to you. For example, will your operation cover the cost of credit card transaction fees, or will those charges be passed along to parents? If the latter, be sure to inform parents in advance to expect such a fee and to be aware that payments may not always be processed instantly. Delbridge emphasizes the importance of training several staff members to be able to address questions and troubleshoot solutions. Also, be sure that the payment system you are considering will integrate seamlessly with your POS, even if they are from two different vendors; get an agreement for this syncing to take place. This will result in an efficient process and avoid the steps to download payment information and reconcile the two systems by hand. Mason City (Ohio) Schools It was a district-wide computer system upgrade, following Microsoft’s announcement that it would no longer support Windows XP after April 2014, that was the impetus for Mason City’s school nutrition operation making the switch to a new meals payment system. Child Nutrition Supervisor Tamara Earl, SNS, and her team made the transition in SY 2013-14, changing from Horizon Software International’s FastLane POS system, which Microsoft could no longer support, to Horizon’s OneSource, as well as its MyPaymentsPlus online payment system. MyPaymentsPlus allows families to add money to their children’s school meal accounts via credit card. “The principal feature and the main reason that we encourage families to use [this system] is that payments are sent to the school sites approximately every 30 minutes or less,” which is especially useful for parents who call with a last-minute request, says Earl. Parents also are able to see their students’ daily transactions and purchases, set low balance email reminders and sign up for the auto-replenish option that automatically adds money to the account when it reaches a user-specified balance. A mobile app is available for both Apple and Android devices, and Earl and her team encourage parents to use it. The app is being embraced slowly—Earl estimates five mobile transactions per day. But the new payments system offers other advantages earning kudos from the school meals team. These include the appearance of the MyPaymentsPlus screen and the fact that each page on the screen can contain approximately 30 keys. The payment system also allows staff to view students by homeroom, which has been particularly useful, Earl reports. As they gain experience with MyPaymentsPlus, which has involved several training sessions that were included in Horizon’s contract for the conversion, the Mason child nutrition team has been learning to work with the new system. Earl doesn’t downplay the monumental challenge of adjusting to new views and features—and finding work-arounds for what’s not available. “Some of the reports in the old system were not available [with MyPaymentsPlus,]” she explains. “It has taken Horizon’s research and development team over a year to produce some of the reports needed for the state of Ohio.” Earl advises other school nutrition operators who are planning to purchase new payment systems or update existing ones to “be clear about the outcomes needed. A strong relationship with the vendor is imperative to success.” She also cites the importance of including your district’s IT department in initial discussions with your vendor. When transitioning from one system to another, ensure in advance that you will be able to generate reports that will match or replace those from your old system. Decide whether a phased-in implementation over time is better than, say, debuting the new system completely at the start of the school year. Either way, “Budget extra time for implementation, not just training but for the unexpected,” recommends Earl, citing “keypads that won’t work with the software, configurations that were not set as thought, reports that do not work or do not exist as they did before,” and so on. Finally, she says, “Check and re-check the accuracy of the reports—never take it for granted!” RSU 14 Windham Raymond School Department, Windham, Maine Director of School Nutrition Jeanne Reilly, SNS, can personally vouch for the effectiveness of her operation’s mobile app in paying for school meals—she uses it for her own daughter’s account! In her role heading up the district’s school nutrition team, Reilly has been pleased with the payment system’s other features, as well. Her operation began using Heartland School Solutions’ MySchoolBucks approximately two years ago, following Heartland’s purchase of NUTRIKIDS, whose payment system the district had used since SY 2009-10. MySchoolBucks, which integrates with the district’s NUTRIKIDS POS system, allows parents to manage payments for multiple student accounts. This is particularly helpful considering that parents pay a $1.95 convenience fee for each transaction, so making larger payments to cover all their children is an advantage. Credit cards can be used for payment online, although not at the POS. After the initial few months following the switch to MySchoolBucks, the system is now “seamless and easy,” she says, though she admits that occasionally parents do report user problems. “I generally believe that these issues arise from network and firewall issues, as parents often try to access the site from their place of employment,” Reilly explains. She recommends that other school nutrition operations planning to make the move to a new payment system be sure that the vendor has a good technical support team. Relatedly, “Make sure your own tech department is on board. Include them in your decision-making process,” Reilly says. She also emphasizes the value in knowing, in advance, all the associated costs to your department and to users. Finally, don’t skimp in getting the word out once the payment system is ready to launch. “Include the information on menus, newsletters, websites and Facebook pages,” Reilly advises. Douglas County School District, Castle Rock, Colo. Nutrition Services Director Brent Craig, SNS, has been using Heartland School Solutions’ MySchoolBucks since Heartland bought MCS Software in 2014; previously, Douglas County used an MCS payment system. Users have reported a smooth experience with the new system, and about 80% of the operation’s meal payments are completed online, Craig cites, noting that “Heartland has a good system; we just pay too much for it.” Craig and his team made the decision while using the MCS Software system to cover the cost of credit card transaction fees so that convenience fees are not passed along to parents. Though his district is largely affluent, Craig estimates that if his operation asked parents to cover convenience fees, it would receive monthly payments of between $400,000 and $500,000. But because the school nutrition operation covers these fees—at 5.22% per credit card transaction made via MySchoolBucks—more parents are willing to participate and the school nutrition program receives monthly payments between $1 million and $1.5 million. Still, it’s largely the cost of these fees that has prompted Craig to investigate options for a new payment system for next school year. As part of his research toward buying a new payment system for his department, Craig has been working with RevTrak, a turnkey e-commerce product that currently is being used for other online payments throughout the Douglas County district. Under proposal is a credit card fee of around 3.44% per transaction. At press time, he was optimistic that it would be technologically possible for him to use RevTrak in conjunction with MCS Software’s POS system, and he planned to test the potential new system during the spring. “RevTrak would take in the money and upload the payments multiple times per day to the MCS point-of-sale system at the district level, then MCS would push out [the payments] to the local schools,” Craig describes. He is hopeful that MCS/Heartland will agree to work with him on this venture. Craig has a few other items on his wishlist for a new payment system. These include the ability to accept all major credit cards and electronic checks (“This is important because some people may not feel safe using credit cards online; we get $75,000 in electronic checks each month,” he explains), good electronic systems reporting and mobile app functionality. Craig estimates that some 30% of parents using MySchool- Bucks take advantage of its mobile app, so he and his team will encourage use of an app with a new payment system. To colleagues in other districts who are contemplating a new payment system, Craig recommends “working with a reputable company that is sound and compliant with banking regulations, [whose product is] secure and runs well with a good track record.” Ease of operation for parents during the sign-up process also is a must, as is the ability of the payment system to work with your POS. “When you put that much money into an electronic system, you want it streamlined,” Craig affirms. Payment System Vendors Some companies that offer payment systems include: ■ Cybersoft Technologies, Inc. www.cybersoft.net ■ Data Business Systems www.databusys.com ■ Educational Biometric Technology www.fingerid.net ■ Food Service Solutions, Inc. www.foodserve.com ■ Harris School Solutions www.harrisschoolsolutions.com ■ Heartland School Solutions www.heartlandpaymentsystems.com ■ Horizon Software International www.horizonsoftware.com ■ K12 Enterprise www.k12enterprise.com ■ LunchTime Software www.lunchtimesoftware.com ■ MCS Software www.mcssoftware.com ■ Meal Magic Corporation www.mealmagic.com ■ Meals Plus/Education Management Systems www.mealsplus.com ■ MealTime/The CLM Group www.mealtimeclm.com ■ PCS Revenue Control Systems, Inc. www.pcsrcs.com You’re The Expert A snapshot of the districts that shared their experiences using and purchasing payment systems in this month’s column. ■ Chandler Unified School District Chandler, Ariz. Website: www.cusdnutrition.com Director: Wesley Delbridge, RD District enrollment: ~41,000 Number of schools: 44 ■ Mason City Schools Mason, Ohio Website: www.masonohioschools.com Director: Tamara Earl, SNS District enrollment: ~10,700 Number of schools: 5 ■ RSU 14 Windham Raymond School Department Windham, Maine Website: www.windham.k12.me.us Director: Jeanne Reilly, SNS District enrollment: ~3,300 Number of schools: 7 ■ Douglas County School District Castle Rock, Colo. Website: www.dcsdk12.org Director: Brent Craig, SNS District enrollment: ~65,000 Number of schools: 80 Cecily Walters is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore., and a former managing editor of this publication.
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