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 rejected a company CEO's offer to cover the cost, the businessman said Tuesday. Todd Carmichael, chief executive and co-founder of Philadelphia-based La Colombe Coffee, said he offered to give Wyoming Valley West School District $22,000 to wipe out bills that generated the recent warning letter to parents.
But school board President Joseph Mazur rejected the offer during a phone conversation Monday, Carmichael spokesman Aren Platt said Tuesday. Mazur argued that 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, noting the offer stands.
Mazur did not return a phone message left at his home. Wyoming Valley West's solicitor, Charles Coslett, said he did not know what the school board plans to do. "I don't know what my client's intention is at this point. That's the end of the line," Coslett 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."
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.