ABC News(PHILADELPHIA) — A Pennsylvania school district that threatened to have children placed in foster care if their parents’ didn’t pay outstanding lunch tabs has now accepted a businessman’s offer to cover the cost after initially rejecting the offer.
Joseph Muth, director of the Wyoming Valley West School District’s federal programs, told ABC News last week that the warning letter was sent to dozens of parents, saying that the district was owed around $22,476 in lunch money. He described the letter as “over the top” and as a mistake, but suggested that the district would explore other options to get repaid.
Todd Carmichael, the CEO and co-founder of La Colombe Coffee Roasters, which is headquartered in Philadelphia, said he offered to give the school district over $22,000 to settle students’ massive lunch debt on Monday, after learning about a letter sent to parents earlier this month that threatened children could be “taken from your home and placed in foster care” if their tab wasn’t paid.
But the district’s school board president, Joseph Mazur, initially refused the proposition in a telephone conversation on Monday, arguing that the lunch money is owed by parents who can afford to pay, according to Carmichael’s spokesman Aren Platt.
Mazur later changed his mind, saying in a statement Wednesday afternoon that the school district would like to “acknowledge” Carmichael’s “generous offer.”
The school board decided to accept the donation after discussions with Wyoming Valley West Educational Foundation President Michael Plaksin and all members of the school board, Mazur said. The funds will be directed to the foundation to “eliminate the debt owed by parents.”
Mazur, on behalf of the school board, also “sincerely” apologized for the tone of the letter sent to parents regarding the lunch debt.
“It wasn’t the intention of the district to harm or inconvenience any of the families of our school district,” he said.
Mazur also thanked all of the concerned citizens who offered donations to whittle down the debt.
More than 14% of people living within the school district are below the poverty line, about 10% higher than the overall number across the state of Pennsylvania, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“I think it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put A and B together here to realize that these people are struggling,” Carmichael said in an interview with ABC Philadelphia station WPVI on Tuesday night. “We’re shaming people who are struggling, and that’s immoral and that’s just wrong.”
In a letter sent to local newspapers on Monday and later provided to ABC News, Carmichael said he felt he “had to do something” to help because he received free meals at school as a child when his mother struggled to make ends meet.
“I know what it means to be hungry. I know what it means to feel shame for not being able to afford food,” he wrote. “I worked with my team to reach out to the school district to let them know we were eager to donate the full amount outstanding.”
For the first time, the school district will qualify for the Community Eligibility Program, which will allow all students to receive free breakfast and lunch for the next five years, regardless of income, Mazur said.
“No student was ever denied a meal for lack of payment,” Mazur said.
In his letter to local newspapers, Carmichael said the offer still stood and urged the school board president to reconsider.
“Mr. Mazur, I am offering to pay this debt in full,” he wrote. “By saying no, you are not just shaming families who elected you, but you are placing this burden on [Wyoming Valley West] taxpayers, and that is completely unfair.”
The school board did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment Wednesday.
Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania weighed in on Twitter, saying “these letters were callous and should never have happened.”
“Moving forward,” Casey tweeted, “the School District has an obligation to find an appropriate way to collect these funds, instead of using threats.”
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