The president of a Pennsylvania school board whose district had warned parents behind on school lunch bills that their children could end up in foster care has apologized to parents and said he will accept a company CEO's offer to cover the unpaid bills after initially rejecting it.
Joseph Mazur, president of the Wyoming Valley West School Board, announced in a letter to parents on Wednesday that he is now accepting an offer of $22,000 from Todd Carmichael, chief executive and co-founder of Philadelphia-based La Colombe Coffee.
"We have been in touch with Michael Plaksin, president of the Wyoming Valley West Educational Foundation (previously established to benefit the students of our district)," Mazur wrote. "After discussions with Mr. Plaksin and all members of the Wyoming Valley West School Board, we have decided to accept Mr. Carmichael’s generous donation. It will be directed to the Wyoming Valley West Educational Foundation to eliminate the debt owed by the parents."
Mazur initially rejected Carmichael's offer during a phone conversation Monday, Carmichael's spokesman Aren Platt said Tuesday. Mazur had argued the money is owed by parents who can afford to pay, Platt said.
"The position of Mr. Carmichael is, irrespective of affluence, irrespective of need, he just wants to wipe away this debt," Platt said.
In a letter sent to papers in the Wilkes-Barre area on Monday, Carmichael said his offer was motivated in part because he received free meals as a child growing up near Spokane, Washington.
"I know what it means to be hungry," Carmichael wrote. "I know what it means to feel shame for not being able to afford food."
The letters from the school district warned parents that they "can be sent to dependency court for neglecting your child's right to food," and that the children could be removed and placed in foster care.
Child welfare authorities have told the district that Luzerne County does not run its foster system that way.
Luzerne County's manager and child welfare agency director wrote to Superintendent Irvin DeRemer, demanding the district stop making what it called false claims. DeRemer has not returned messages in recent days.
In an editorial Tuesday, the Times-Tribune of Scranton called the threats shameful and an act of hubris. The paper urged lawmakers and the state Department of Education to "outlaw such outlandish conduct by law and regulation covering lunch debt collection."
In his letter Wednesday, Mazur apologized for the initial letter on behalf of the Wyoming Valley West School District Board of Directors.
"The Wyoming Valley West School District Board of Directors sincerely apologizes for the tone of the letter that was sent regarding lunch debt," Mazur wrote. "It wasn’t the intention of the district to harm or inconvenience any of the families of our school district."
The district's federal programs director, Joseph Muth, has said school officials considered serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to students with overdue accounts but received legal advice warning against it.
School district officials have said they planned other ways to get the lunch money, such as filing a district court complaint or placing liens on properties.
In the coming school year, Wyoming Valley West will qualify for funding to provide free lunches to all students.
"For the first time our district fully qualifies for the Community Eligibility Program," Mazur wrote Wednesday. "As a result, all students of the Wyoming Valley West School District will receive free breakfast and lunch in all of our schools for the next five years regardless of income. No student was ever denied a meal for lack of payment."
Mazur also insisted the Wyoming Valley West School District followed all USDA and PDE regulations.
"All meals served to students were chosen by the students from our regular menu," he wrote. "No shaming occurred and no alternate meals were provided."