In Todd Carmichael’s eyes, it’s another outrageous turn in an already outrageous story. The CEO of La Colombe coffee says that he wants to pony up $22,467.76 to wipe out the school-lunch debts of kids within the Wyoming Valley West School District—a Pennsylvania district that famously threatened the possibility of children being placed in foster care if their debts weren’t paid. But Carmichael’s offer has apparently been declined. The Philadelphia Inquirer speaks with a consultant for the Philly-based La Colombe; Aren Platt says Carmichael was moved to help having himself relied on food stamps and free lunch as a child. He asked Platt to contact the school district’s attorney, then the superintendent, but neither responded to her. On Monday, Platt managed to get in touch with school board president Joseph Mazur and was rebuffed.
Platt says Mazur expressed that he believed the hundreds of parents who received letters about their debt have the means to pay but “just want to get something for free.” The move “was about shaming people,” she says. Pennsylvania Department of Education figures show 64% of students in the district live below the poverty line. Carmichael confirmed the denial in a statement to the Citizens’ Voice: “Shockingly, Mr. Mazur turned us down. I can’t explain or justify his actions. Let me be clear: we offered over $22,000 with no strings attached. And he said ‘NO.'” On Monday, Luzerne County Manager David Pedri reassured parents, telling CNN, “Luzerne County foster care will never take a kid for not paying school debt.”
Related: A Pennsylvania School District Threatened Parents’ Custody Rights Over Unpaid Lunch Bills
Earlier this month, some parents of students in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, opened letters from the Wyoming Valley West School District with a threat: Pay your school lunch debt, or lose your kids. “Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch,” the letter read. “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. The result may be your child being taken from your home and placed in foster care.”
According to the local CBS affiliate, the district is reportedly trying to recoup up to $20,000 in outstanding debt, with four parents owing at least $450 each. But Luzerne County Children and Youth Services executive director Joanne Van Saun described the letter as “a gross misrepresentation of what our agency does” to local news station WYOU. “It’s just not true. We do not remove children from families for unpaid bills,” she said. “If we learned about this problem, we would have collaborated with Wyoming Valley West to come up with other ways to meet those bills.”
Pennsylvania’s Democratic senator Bob Casey decried the letters, saying, “No child should have to imagine the horror of being ripped away from their parents because their family is struggling economically.” Nationwide, school districts carry an average of $2,500 for unpaid student lunches, up from $2,000 per district since 2016. In some districts, the total debt is as high as $856,000, according to the School Nutrition Association. The total compensation for American CEOs, meanwhile, grew last year by 7 percent, to an average of $12 million per executive.
Charles Coslett, a lawyer for Wyoming Valley West, told reporters he didn’t consider the letter threatening. He added, “Hopefully, that gets their attention and it certainly did, didn’t it? I mean, if you think about it, you’re here this morning because some parents cried foul because he or she doesn’t want to pay a debt attributed to feeding their kids. How shameful.”