A school district in eastern Pennsylvania faced criticism after sending letters this month to more than three dozen parents warning that if their debt for school meals was not paid, their child could be placed in foster care.
“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch,” read the letter, which was signed by Joseph Muth, director of federal programs for the Wyoming Valley West School District. “This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child’s right to food. If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”
David Usavage, the vice president of the school board, said on Saturday that when he first read the letter, he had thought it was a “joke.”
“It was not approved by anyone,” Mr. Usavage said of the letter. “We have a policy that says everything should go through the superintendent.”
He said the letter was written by Mr. Muth and the district’s lawyer, Charles R. Coslett. Mr. Usavage said Mr. Muth has apologized. Attempts to reach Mr. Muth and Mr. Coslett on Saturday were unsuccessful.
Mr. Usavage said the district, which is in Luzerne County, about 115 miles northwest of Philadelphia, was owed just over $22,000 in breakfast and lunch debt.
He said that 960 students had a debt of five cents up to $9.99. The parents of the 40 students who owe $10 or more were sent the letter, which has received widespread attention.
Mr. Usavage said four students owed more than $440. School meals in the district cost $1 to $2.70.
“We educate kids as best we can with what we have,” he said. “We have a lot of successful kids, but never, never ever have we ever threatened anyone with this kind of letter.”
It’s common for the district to mail letters urging parents to pay debts, but the language has always been “softer,” he said.
The district is made up of seven schools and serves about 5,000 children, Mr. Usavage said. “We have never denied anyone because they don’t have money,” he said. “We would never, ever allow a child to go hungry.”
Mr. Usavage said he received about six phone calls complaining about the letter. C. David Pedri, the county manager, wrote the district a letter, noting that foster care should never be viewed as punitive.
“It weaponizes Luzerne County’s foster care system,” Mr. Pedri said on Saturday. “It’s exactly what we’re not here to do. The foster care system is here to help kids who are abused.”
“Taking a kid out of a house is one of the most extreme things that a foster care system has ever tried to do,” he added. “So you don’t do it lightly. We would never take a kid out of a house for failing to pay a school lunch bill.”
Mr. Pedri said the foster care system should not be utilized to “terrorize” people into paying their lunch debt. “We’re not the boogey man in the middle of the night coming to take your children out of your house for not paying your school lunch bills.”
While it was unclear what, if anything, might happen to Mr. Muth and Mr. Coslett, Mr. Usavage said he wanted to call a special meeting with all school board members to discuss the matter. He also said in the next school year, starting in August, that all children in the district would receive free breakfast and lunch, regardless of their need.
“I don’t want the people who live in the Wyoming Valley West School District to think we are so classless as to send out a letter threatening parents,” he said. “I can assure you we will not take one child or one parent to any kind of court to get back the money.”