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The online fundraiser to honor Philando Castile by paying off student lunch debts is so successful that it will be able to cover the debts of the entire St. Paul School District — not just one elementary school.

Philando Feeds the Children” on youcaring.com had more than $65,000 in the fund Thursday evening. When Metropolitan State University psychology Prof. Pamela Fergus started the effort, she set a goal of $5,000.

Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile, pledged to match that initial $5,000 for J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet, the elementary school where Castile was a nutrition supervisor known as “Mr. Phil.” As the money came in, Fergus increased the goal to $75,000.

Castile was fatally shot by a St. Anthony police officer during a traffic stop in July 2016 in Falcon Heights. His girlfriend live-streamed the aftermath on her cellphone as Castile lay dying behind the wheel. The shooting led to weeks of protests outside the governor’s residence.

The shooting also left heartbreak at the elementary school where he was a welcoming face for young students.

“My first hope is to go to J.J. Hill School in the next couple weeks to prepay their debt,” Fergus said. She plans to bring a giant check and some of her Metro State students.

Fergus didn’t know Castile but was distraught by his killing, calling it a “tragic waste of life.”

She has become friendly with Valerie Castile and has heard about her son’s work with the schoolkids, “how he’d have to convince them to stick to their food plans, to try not to be jealous when an allergy meant a different dessert.”

He also tried to give extra to the “really hungry kids,” Fergus said.

Kids often run short

St. Paul Public Schools’ nutrition services director, Stacy Koppen, said the district can “absolutely” use the money. The annual student lunch debt for the entire district for a full school year is about $60,000, she said.

For the first time last year, the district conducted a public awareness and fundraising campaign that raised $54,000 and paid off lunch debts through March, Koppen said.

Some 70 percent of St. Paul students qualify for free lunches, Koppen said. But the problem is that many parents aren’t aware of the program, struggle with the application, or end up earning as little as $10 too much to qualify.

Typically about 2,000 students end up owing money for lunch at the end of the school year, she said. About 900 kids started this school year in debt from last year, she said.

A fitting tribute to Castile

The fundraiser relieves stress on the district in many ways, such as avoiding the prospect of shifting money from classrooms to food or cutting back on nutrition. “It means a lot to me because the integrity of the lunch program is protected and the quality of our food is not at risk,” she said.

The district serves 29,000 lunches daily. With the debts paid off, Koppen said school officials can work to help parents apply and get enrolled in the program rather than acting as debt collectors. “It is a very touching tribute to him for something he felt passionate about,” Koppen said.

On Friday, Fergus and Koppen will meet for the first time.

Fergus said she plans to turn over the money to the St. Paul Foundation, which provides tax-exempt status and investment opportunities for the lunch money to grow.

Fergus said she hopes to keep the effort alive.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

Twitter: @rochelleolson