TAMPA — No one enjoys paying library fines, yet some Hillsborough school librarians are drawing smiles this season with a catchy phrase: "Can Your Fines!"
Read that literally. Canned food has become a popular replacement for late fees at some middle and high schools. Owe a dollar on a late-returned library book? All can be forgiven for a can of beans.
The district does not set rules on the matter, leaving it to librarians to work out the details of can-for-money substitutions. The idea appears to have taken off by word-of-mouth endorsements.
"For some kids, I know paying the fines is probably not the easiest thing to do," said Darlene Meginnis, media specialist at New Tampa's Liberty Middle School, which started collecting cans last winter after hearing that another school did it. "I still want to hold them responsible for the late fee."
She makes a point of telling students that donating cans to charity is just as good — maybe even better — than paying into a media center fund. Some students donate out of need, others because they want to.
Thirteen-year-old Jasmine Morro didn't even have overdue books. Still, the seventh-grader recently brought canned turkey, peas, potatoes and bread to the Monroe Middle School media center.
"Not that many people around Tampa get to have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and I already know that I'm going to," she said. "I would like other people to have a wonderful Thanksgiving, too."
Like other schools, South Tampa's Monroe finds the pitch has special appeal during the holiday season.
Ferrell Middle School's Mike Saltzgaver began a fine-forgiveness can drive before Thanksgiving. He didn't set a firm stop date. He knows that cash can be hard for students to come by at an east Tampa school, where four out of five students qualify for federally subsidized lunches.
Instead, he tells students who racked up late fees to go into Mom's pantry and "take out stuff you don't like — lima beans, spinach, whatever."
"You guys are healing the hungry people out there in the world," Saltzgaver tells students when they bring in the cans, trying to promote community activism.
Other school libraries still stick with the traditional late book fine — generally 5 cents per day in middle and high schools.
But the canned food fine concept is catching on.
At Walker Middle School in Odessa, the media center has collected cans instead of fines during February for the past two years. The school promotes it as "Have a Heart Month."
High school media specialist Janet Drake has asked students to channel late fees into a can drive for as many as 10 years. She can't recall exactly where she got the idea to start program when she worked at Hillsborough High.
After that, she brought it to Chamberlain High, where a morning show announcement kicked off the "Can Your Fine" program. She asks students to surrender one can for every 50 cents in late fees. Yet the thought counts more than hard and fast rules on pennies owed and donation deadlines.
"I have such a big heart," Drake said. "When they're still bringing cans in, I don't say, 'No, we're back to fines.' So I end up collecting them through Christmas."
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.