A Pennsylvania public school district is facing backlash after threatening to place children who have not paid their school cafeteria debt into foster homes. Now, school officials are eschewing donors’ efforts to pay off the debt in its entirety, despite several offers to do so, NPR reports.
About 40 parents in the Wyoming Valley West School District received a letter sent July 9, asking them to pay off their child’s cafeteria debt. The letter said that should the money not be paid back, “the result may be your child being taken from your home and placed in foster care,” according to NPR.
Luzerne County Manager David Pedri told the outlet at least five donors have offered to pay the $22,000 debt accumulated by dozens of students who did not pay for the in-school meals they received. NPR reported that an anonymous prominent media figure has attempted to settle the outstanding debt, but has yet to hear back from school officials after multiple attempts to reach them.
“These are gracious and kindhearted people, and I have forwarded their information over to the Wyoming Valley West School District for their review,” Pedri told the news outlet.
The Wyoming Valley West School District did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment, and attempts to reach school district officials by telephone were unsuccessful.
Mazur and other members of the administration have yet to respond to NPR’s requests for comment about the donor money, the outlet said.
One willing donor, Todd Carmichael, chief executive of La Colombe coffee company, told NPR that the issue hit close to home, having grown up in a poor household with a single mother raising four children.
“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,” Carmichael said.
When Carmichael’s assistant reached out to the school district, “We were rejected,” he lamented.
Carmichael told NPR that the school board’s president, Joseph Mazur, hung up on his assistant when the conversation became confrontational.
“I’m just completely mystified by it,” Carmichael said of the situation. “I’m still picking through the pieces and saying, ‘What is this?'”
The Wyoming Valley West School District, located outside of the community of Wilkes-Barre, remains one of the poorest districts in Pennsylvania, according to state records obtained by NPR.
Mazur spoke with NPR earlier in the week and defended the controversial letter threatening foster care, telling the news outlet that the school district is in need of cash and looking for ways to save money.
“I think you have to pay your bills,” he said, according to the outlet. “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.”
However, Mazur’s explanation doesn’t account for the offers to pay off the debt from donors such as Carmichael, who believes an ulterior motive may be behind the school district’s letter.
“This really isn’t about the money,” Carmichael continued. “I think it’s about teaching people who are struggling some sort of moral lesson they need to learn, no matter what the consequences are.”
Pedri, who runs Luzerne County’s foster care program, sent a letter back to school district officials, reprimanding them for threatening parents.
“Foster care is something we utilize as a shield to assist kids,” Pedri told NPR. “It’s not a sword. We don’t like foster care being utilized to try to terrorize individuals.”