A Pennsylvania school district sent letters to parents telling them to pay their delinquent breakfast and lunch bills or their children could be placed in foster care.
“Your child has been sent to school without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch,” Joseph Muth, director of federal programs for the district, states in the fill-in-the blank form letter.
“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,” Muth states in the letter. “If you are taken to Dependency Court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”
‘It Is Shameful’
The letter was sent to parents who owed as little as $10 and to four who owed $450 or more, CNN reported. The $22,000 total owed is a tiny fraction of the district’s $80 million annual budget, but times are tough, said Joseph Mazur, president of the district’s board of education.
“We are in the process of trying to save money where we can,” Mazur told National Public Radio on July 22. “We have laid off some of our employees. We have reduced some of our curriculum. And we’re looking anywhere we can save. I don’t care if it’s $1,000 or $20,000.”
The district is abusing parents and misrepresenting the purpose of foster care, says Michael Ramey, executive director of ParentalRights.org.
“It is shameful that a public-school district would take a system designed to be a last resort for victims of child mistreatment and weaponize it to attack parents over a simple monetary debt,” Ramey said. “How can a school district protect against bullying, or teach children not to be bullies, when the school district itself is willing to bully these families?”
County Officials Disagreed
Luzerne County officials say they would not remove children from their homes over unpaid school lunches. County Manager David Pedri told NPR county officials have asked the school district to stop using the language in the letter.
Bill Vinsko, a lawyer in northeastern Pennsylvania, says not being able to pay for meals in the school cafeteria would not meet the state’s legal definition of neglect, so a prosecution over unpaid lunch bills is unlikely in any case.
In addition, local officials say the rising poverty rate in the district means it will soon receive enough federal nutrition assistance to cover meals for all students, regardless of their families’ economic status.
As for the $22,000 shortfall, Mazur said some of it was paid off by parents after they received the letter threatening foster care.
Calls for ‘Quality Schooling Options’
The case shows the need for educational alternatives, says Don Soifer, president of Nevada Action for School Options.
“It would be understandable that reasonable parents would call into question the judgment of the officials responsible for this decision,” Soifer said.
“In situations like this one, there is real value in having other, quality schooling options available for families to choose if they feel other options would be better for their children,” Soifer said.
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.