As news updates go, this one seems to be swaying in a positive direction.
Earlier this week, Parentology reported on Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley West School District’s $22,000 unpaid lunch fees. The district sent a letter to 1,000 parents threatening to take them to Dependency Court and, potentially, send their children to foster care. Todd Carmichael, chief executive officer and co-founder of Philadelphia-based La Colombe Coffee, stepped in, offering to pay off the debt.
The response of School Board President, Joseph Mazur (pictured above)? “An emphatic ‘No,’” Carmichael says. Indeed, Mazur defended the letter to NPR. “I think you have to pay your bills,” he said. “I mean, I’ve been paying my bills all my life. So has everybody else. 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.”
From there the story gained national attention, and now school officials have made an about-face.
Yesterday, the Wyoming Valley West School District issued an apology for the inital threatening letter. Signed by Mazur, it opens by saying, “The Wyoming Valley West School District Board of Directors sincerely apologizes for the tone of the letter that was sent regarding lunch debt. It wasn’t the intention of the district to harm or inconvenience any of the families of our school district.” It goes on to add that all students, “…will receive free breakfast and lunch in all of our schools for the next five years regardless of income.”
Carmichael’s Initial Rejection
There were no apparent reasons why Mazur initially rejected Carmichael’s offer, and Wyoming Valley West School District ignored Parentology’s repeated requests for an interview.
However, Carmichael tells Parentology, “Initially, they said it was just about recovering the money, but when we presented a solution to the financial issues, they still said no. To me, that means it was never about the money – it was about shaming the parents.”
As the story grew, Luzerne County Child Welfare requested threats of Dependency Court and foster care cease. They stated these actions were not in keeping with the Children and Youth Services Department. Not backing down, Wyoming Valley West School District responded by saying it was looking into other legal avenues for retrieving the debt, including placing liens on properties and filing district court complaints.
Feeling further action was needed, Carmichael pressed on. “I wrote a letter to the editor of the local papers that serve the school district,” he says. “After that was published, the story really took off.”
In the last 24 hours, the story has changed, with the school district now accepting the offer.
“I’m happy to report that the school board has reconsidered,” Carmichael says. “We’re currently hammering out the details, but feel optimistic that these parents’ debts will be erased soon and each parent will get a letter of apology from the school board.”
As to whether Carmichael has heard from parents who received the letters, he says, “We haven’t talked directly to any of the parents. To us, it’s about helping them maintain their dignity, and because of that, we don’t have to know the names of the people struggling to pay their bills.”
He continues, “The other side of that is that we always hoped to remain anonymous with our gift. It wasn’t until we heard no that I decided to use my voice and my name to call them out.”
As for Carmichael, the experience has deepened his convictions. “The lesson I’ve taken away from this is that somehow, as a culture, we seem to have moved away from helping our neighbors, moved away from general kindness. I think it’s time we try to return to decency, to trying to lift each other up in every way possible.”
Finally, he adds, “It sounds corny, but if everyone practiced a little more kindness, we wouldn’t have gotten into this mess in the first place.”