Michael Ceglinski, McCracken County High School principal, sent an email Thursday requesting help from parents and others to pay off $31,986 in cafeteria charges.
He wrote to parents: "Let that amount of money wash over your heart for a moment ... and then the plea for your help. Please help us reduce this total."
Ceglinski said Thursday that the amount has been inherited over the years and that senior year in high school becomes the "end of the road" for the unpaid charges.
"It's an issue with any business that renders services," he said. "We are always going to feed children, so the problem is ongoing and there is no perfect solution."
Some students begin to accrue charges in first-grade, and the amount carries over throughout the years. About $27,000 of the total was past debt, inherited prior to this school year, according to School Board Chairman Jeff Parker. That leaves about $4,000 added during the current school year by the school's 2,000 students.
The county high school has 46 percent of its students on free and reduced lunches, compared with Paducah Public Schools that have all students districtwide on free and reduced lunches.
McCracken district officials offer free and reduced lunch applications yearly to parents and encourage those who quality to apply, said Food Service Director Sara Jane Hedges.
If students have an outstanding balance, they can still receive an entire reimbursable meal. The five components include a meat, grain, fruit, vegetable and milk product, but those students cannot add extra a la carte options, she said.
"We will always feed every child breakfast and lunch even if they have an unpaid balance," she said. "We feed them the same as everyone else."
Hedges said the cost to feed a student both meals each day is about $3.10.
Principals at each level work to reduce the amount of unpaid meals before passing the balance onto the next school, she said.
Parker said the district expects to receive payment from parents for the majority of unpaid bills by the end of the school year. Any unpaid amount leftover then carries over to the next school year, and that school would begin with a negative balance.
Schools cannot withhold a transcript for classes students have completed, but officials can delay the handing out of a student's diploma if the bills aren't paid. The district's procedures state that "failure to pay may result in non-participation of the graduation ceremony," according to Russ Tilford, McCracken County director of pupil personnel.
He said a senior who completes the required courses would still be considered a graduate. Barring students from graduation isn't a usual practice, and the district tries to work with families through summer payment plans.
Contact Kathleen Fox, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or follow @kathleendfox on Twitter.