A Pennsylvania school district has threatened that children could end up in foster care if their parents fail to pay overdue school lunch tabs.

The Wyoming Valley West School District recently sent letters to about 1,000 parents saying the district was owed more than $20,000 in lunch money, and that other methods to get parents to pay have not been successful. The district is warning that the unpaid bills could lead to dependency hearings and removal of their children for not providing them with food.

The letters have led to complaints from parents and a stern rebuke from Luzerne County child welfare authorities.

Luzerne County’s manager David Pedri and Children and Youth Director Joanne Van Saun insisted the district stop making what they call false claims. They wrote Thursday in a letter to district Superintendent Irvin DeRemer that Luzerne County Children and Youth foster care system is used “when a child has been abused” or “a family has been struck by tragedy,” not “to scare families into paying school lunch bills.”

Joseph Muth, director of the district’s federal programs called the letter a mistake by not having DeRemer review the letter with the foster-care warning. The school board plan to send a less threatening letter next week.

School board Vice President David Usavage said the warning in the letter “was harsh” and may have inflicted unnecessary stress on parents, noting the average unpaid bill was $22 a student.

But Charles Coslett, another board member who is also the lawyer representing the board, said he did not consider the letters to be threatening. Coslett said that Federal regulations forced the district to provide lunches to students even when they had a tab for unpaid meals.

School district officials say they plan to pursue other legal avenues to get the lunch money, such as filing a district court complaint or placing liens on properties.

The district will qualify for funding to provide free lunches to all students for the upcoming school year.

This year, the district underwrote free lunches for four elementary and middle schools, and officials think some parents did not pay as a form of protest.

Categories: U.S. Pennsylvania