Public schools

This School District Threatened To Take Kids Away From Parents Over Lunch Debt. Then It Refused a Businessman's Offer to Pay Those Debts.

Instead of teaching kids the importance of paying their debts, Wyoming Valley West school district offered a lesson about the arbitrary and terrifying power of government.

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A Pennsylvania school district took the old cliché about bullies stealing lunch money and amped it up. If parents don't settle their unpaid lunch debts, the district said, it might steal their kids.

Wyoming Valley West School District sent letters to parents with at least $10 in unpaid lunch costs threatening to place their children in foster care if the bills weren't paid. The district tried to justify the threats by pointing out that it was trying to collect more than $22,000 in unpaid lunch costs—a fraction of its $80 million annual budget—and that some families owed as much as $450.

Sending children to school without lunch or money to buy lunch, the letter informed parents, counted as "a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition."

"You can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child's right to food," the letter read. "If you are taken to Dependency Court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care."

The letter sparked widespread outrage and condemnation in local and eventually national media—as well as condemnations from Luzerne County officials who pointed out, correctly, that the foster care system should not be used "as a punitive agency or weaponized to terrorize children and families."

And, at the risk of stating the obvious, no parent should be threatened with the prospect of losing their children to the state over a $10 debt.

The school district's stance only got more absurd when it initially rejected a Philadelphia businessman's offer to settle the full $22,000 debt on behalf of Wyoming Valley West parents.

Todd Carmichael, the CEO of La Colombe Coffee, published an op-ed in the Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice on Tuesday detailing his attempts to settle the debts.

"As a child, I received free meals at school when my 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," Carmichael wrote. After reaching out to Joseph Mazur, president of the Wyoming Valley West school board, Carmichael wrote that he was shocked by the response.

"Mr. Mazur turned us down," Carmichael wrote. "I can't explain or justify his actions. Let me be clear: we offered over $22,000 with no strings attached. And he said 'No.'"

On Wednesday evening, Mazur changed course and agreed to accept the money. In a statement, the school board president also apologized for having sent the letters in the first place.

Obviously, parents should pay for their kids' lunches or otherwise make sure their children are being fed. That's a basic responsibility that comes with having offspring.

But the school district's actions—at least until the reversal on Wednesday evening—are indefensible. If district officials were motivated purely by the need to settle the debts, then the district should have accepted the donation when it was offered the first time. If it wasn't about the money—if it was about "getting their attention," as the district's lawyer explained to a local TV station—then threatening parents with the loss of their children is hardly an appropriate way to collect a debt.

Instead of teaching a lesson about the importance of paying your bills, the school district ended up teaching both parents and kids a lesson about the arbitrary and terrifying power of government.

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  1. It is ridiculous.

    This was never happening back when I was in school. You either paid for your lunch or brought your own. There was no way to get into debt with student lunches. Of course, most of us poor folks had sandwiches, either peanut butter and jelly, deviled ham, or something I think was called spreadables.

    1. that was my childhood as well sometimes it was a slice of balloony or cheese but not both. Part of the problem is the school shouldn’t let the debt go beyond $10.00 but then the crap they feed kids these days $10.00 may cover an entire years worth of meals made with sawdust

    2. I tried school lunch like twice and went right back to brown bagging it. Poor kids got reduced price lunch. I don’t remember anything about debt or credit for lunch. Some people had tickets, most paid as they went.

      1. It has to do with the payment system. There is no cash. Nowadays, students have a pin # or card and they simply give that to “buy” the lunch. The system allows accounts to go negative by design. It’s to not shame the kids. But that has this obvious failing.

        When it was all cash, there was no worry about shame, because there was no explicit open refusal. No cash = no food. You simply didn’t get in the lunch line if you didn’t have the cash to pay for it.

        If you go cashless, you need to be prepared to write off free loaders. There’s almost no other way if you want to avoid this Shame issue.

  2. Obviously, parents should pay for their kids’ lunches or otherwise make sure their children are being fed.

    They just shouldn’t face any consequences if they don’t, because consequences are racist or some shit.

    1. No, the consequences should be reasonable and proportional. Taking away someone’s children over $10 is absurd, for numerous reasons, not the least of which the cost to taxpayers of litigating that action would cost many, many, many times more than the $10 debt. A single $10 litigation could cost taxpayers more than the entire $22k.

      1. To get from “$10 of unpaid lunches” to “your kids are going into foster care” is a lengthy and complicated process – the letter even says so.

        Also by your logic it would be better to write off the entire $22k than to ever enforce consequences on the parents. Utilitarian to be sure. But mostly just idiotic. You get more of what you subsidize.

        1. There are plenty of other ways to hold the parents to account. Like not extending credit for lunch beyond a certain limit. Or at all. Or send letters that don’t make threats against people’s children. Just threaten to send them to a debt collector and most will probably pay up.

          1. Which is illegal in Pennsylvania, and possibly under Federal law as well.

          2. Utilitarian has just got done saying that no child should be refused food lest they suffer embarrassment, try to keep up.

        2. Utilitarian didn’t say to never enforce consequences – he/she said to enforce reasonable and proportional consequences. In my area’s school district, that could mean:
          – temporarily losing the right to participate in sports, band or other enrichment activities
          – withholding diplomas or transcripts of grades until the debt is repaid
          – having your account sent to a collection agency

  3. Ordinarily if someone doesn’t pay for a service or product they don’t get the service or product anymore and get sued or taken to small claims court.
    Or is there no contract with parents and the school is providing lunches without any request and then trying to charge for it after the fact?
    I’m having a hard time understanding all this.

    1. Through a neat little fiction called government, school lunches are provided for free to most students based on a complex formula involving their parents’ income and expenses. It’s not fee for service.

    2. schools don’t want to embarass the children by denying them food in front of their class mates and i’m okay with that, its between the school and the parents

      1. True. I mean, you shouldn’t deny kids a bag full of clothes at the Gap just because their parents can’t pay. It’s between the adults and the shopkeeper.

        1. The difference is that kids aren’t required to spend all day in the Gap. You keep them locked up for 8 hours, you kind of have to feed them.

          1. Just like when your boss brings you a lunch every day.

    3. As a number of children actually depend on school breakfasts and lunches for nutrition, it is illegal to withhold lunch or provide alternate lunches that do not comply with the nutrition requirements.

      Of course, all of the kids that this really applies to qualify for free lunch anyway.

  4. Are you trying to get paid, or be monsters?

    Take the fucking money. How does this have to be explained?

    1. “If it wasn’t about the money—if it was about “getting their attention,” as the district’s lawyer explained to a local TV station”

      Oh OK, it WASN’T about getting paid. Who told these idiots their job in foodservice was to send a message?

    2. Have you ever watched “Merchant of Venice”? This is reminiscent of the climax, where Shylock refuses money provided by the Duke and Antonio’s friends because it is now personal. Shylock wants his pound of flesh since he is furious at the betrayal and abuse he has endured not only the entire play but his entire life.

      This seems similar. The school doesn’t need this specific money. It’s not a significant part of the school budget. However, they do want to ensure people actually care and pay for the bills in the future. Perhaps they even are taking a principled stand to help all schools, which routinely write off thousands of dollars in unpaid lunch debts.

  5. It takes a village.

    To those who LOVE more government, this is what more government gets you – petty power plays to put you plebes in your place.

    1. ^ This guy gets it.

    2. This is what happens when you don’t use either

      1) tar, feathers, fence rail
      2) rope, tree/lamppost
      3) woodchipper

      for their proper political purpose – making an object lesson out of petty tyrants.

      1. The tyranny of paying for the meals you ate.

  6. Back when American people had balls, the citizens of Wyoming Valley West would have dragged the school board into the street and given them some tar and feathers. There is a fundamental need to slap down petty (and not so petty) tyrants.

    1. They wouldn’t have had a government school in the first place. Tar and feathering disappeared long before government started providing schools.

      1. We can still use Rule 308.

        Or alternatively, Rules 3006, 9, 38 and 45.

        1. I sometimes ponder a more flexible justice system.

          Suppose you, on your own, pre-emptively decide someone is guilty, and pre-emptively punish them. At their trial, if their jury finds them guilty, your pre-emptive punishment is subtracted from the jury punishment, and if it comes out negative, you serve the difference.

          The victims should be able to negotiate with their criminal regarding the jury-imposed punishment. Anything goes, as long as the parties agree unanimously. They might agree that a month of being stuck in a pillory 8 hours a day, with spectators throwing only soft items (rotten eggs, tomatoes, no feces), is suitable substitute for a year in jail.

          Suppose the parents here tarred and feathered the school board or principals or whoever was responsible. This would be the old-fashioned way, with room temperature pine pitch, not boiling asphalt, where the primary punishment is the humiliation and the cleanup, not fatal burns. The crime, of course, is threatening kidnapping under color of law; I’m sure there is some legal charge they can be tried under. Let the jury decide the punishment. Let the bureaucrats and the parents trade future huge fines and prison time for the already-committed tar and feathering.

          I’m down with that.

  7. This is the problem with government dependency; because it is guaranteed as a “right” and equal protection is assured, the government cannot question the motives of those asking for assistance. That allows for freeloaders, which is why the government wanted to teach them a lesson. That itself is a problem; the government shouldn’t be in the business of being a good citizen, especially because any lesson you’re taught is backed by the monopoly on force. A private citizen can feel free to give their money to freeloaders and that private citizen will teach a much more effective lesson withholding funding or imposing conditions against freeloading.

    In short, get the government out of welfare.

  8. My problem is with only the deadbeat parents having the lunch money paid for. How about the other parents, who scrimped and sacrificed, and made sure the kid’s lunch was paid for? What do the responsible parents get? Besides getting pretty pissed off, they get nothing.

    1. the kids of parents who pay understand and learn to hate the welfare system as much as their parents.

      1. Not all of them. Just the miserable malcontents who worry more about a few dollars than whether a child is nourished or shamed at school lunch period, mostly. Some people have sound judgment and recognize that it is never an eight-year-old’s fault for having losers for parents.

  9. >>>teaching both parents and kids a lesson about the arbitrary and terrifying power of government

    potential good lesson then.

  10. Where is the resignation from this cretin on the school board?

  11. Wait, didn’t this have hundreds of comments yesterday?

    1. I think you’re thinking of this article which was similar but didn’t have the details about the rejection of the business owner’s offer.

  12. I have mixed feelings on this. We shouldn’t be using CPS to threaten people over $10 unpaid lunches, but at the same time, by paying off the lunches of those who didn’t pay, we essentially rewarded the people that didn’t pay while fucking over those poor parents that may have skipped a meal or two to pay off their kid’s overdue lunch bill.

  13. So why exactly can’t the district just garnish wages/tax “refunds”/welfare benefits to reclaim the lost money?

    1. PA law forbids this.

  14. This is the same county in PA where two judges were receiving kickbacks from a private prison to sentence kids there, whether they were delinquent or not.

    Something in the water there. Which would explain why Genesee Beer tastes like shit.

    1. Yup, it is the water; too much acid mine drainage from the old coal mines….

  15. I’d like to buy some of the stuff the Wyoming Valley West school district is smoking.
    It must be the best shit on planet earth.

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