Like many schools, Wyoming Valley West School District in Pennsylvania struggles with the issue of lunch debt. In the 2018-19 school year, students who could not afford to pay for breakfasts and lunches racked up a total of over $20,000 in debt across the district. After pursuing recompense via letters, robocalls, and emails, the district singled out approximately 40 families with the worst debt and sent them a letter that has since become infamous.
The letter, written by Joseph Muth, the director of federal programs for the school district, threatened these families with Dependency Court and foster care over lunch debt as little as $10. Joseph Mazur, the president of Wyoming Valley West’s board of education, approved the letter and continues to defend it, even after the district received a letter of rebuke from county court officials.
“I think you have to pay your bills… I mean, sometimes you have to do without something for yourself if you want to raise your kids and see that they’re taken care of,” said Mazur in an interview with NPR, a particularly tone-deaf statement in one of the poorest districts in a poor state.
As if these financially struggling parents are out buying 80-inch TVs and $6,000 four-wheelers while refusing to give their kids lunch money? I think not!
The words I’d use to describe Muth and Mazur, and their heartless attitudes, are not suitable for use in this blog.
Since that letter, which went out on July 9, a number of donors have stepped forward with offers to pay off the $22,000 lunch debt, including an anonymous but prominent media personality and Todd Carmichael, millionaire philanthropist and owner of coffee company La Colombe.
“I know what it’s like to be shamed at school. I know what these things are. And I know how my mother would react if someone threatened to take her children away,” said Carmichael, who was raised in poverty by his mother with three siblings.
But when Carmichael’s staff contacted Mazur, the district president became argumentative and hung up on him. Mazur has not allowed any of the other potential donors to contribute, either.
After Mazur’s excuses about his district being “strapped for cash,” seeing him turn away the generosity of strangers might be confusing. But he clearly has an agenda that has nothing to do with food or money.
“This really isn’t about the money,” Carmichael said. “I think it’s about teaching people who are struggling some sort of moral lesson … no matter what the consequences.”
The Times-Tribune of Scranton also chimed in on Mazur’s Puritan morality play, calling the threats “shameful” and “an act of hubris.”
“The State Department of Education and the Legislature had no way of knowing that some school district officials would play the schoolyard bully, issuing threats to separate children from their parents in pursuit of lunch money,” the editorial board wrote. They also urged state lawmakers to “outlaw such outlandish conduct by law and regulation covering lunch debt collection.”