The Northeastern Pennsylvania school district that drew a national spotlight for its threat to place in foster care children whose parents had not paid their school-lunch bills has reversed course, apologizing and saying it will accept the donation of a Philadelphia businessman to clear the unpaid bills.

In a letter to the Wyoming Valley West community, the school board said it “sincerely apologizes for the tone of the letter that was sent regarding such debt. It wasn’t the intention of the district to harm or inconvenience any of the families of our school district."

Todd Carmichael, owner of La Colombe coffee, poses for a portrait in the La Colombe at 1335 Frankford Avenue in Fishtown, Philadelphia on Thursday, March 07, 2019.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photogra / HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Todd Carmichael, owner of La Colombe coffee, poses for a portrait in the La Colombe at 1335 Frankford Avenue in Fishtown, Philadelphia on Thursday, March 07, 2019.

The board said it had decided to take La Colombe CEO and co-founder Todd Carmichael up on the offer it had rejected. The Wyoming Valley West Educational Foundation, a nonprofit that benefits the school district, will accept the donation and coordinate clearing the $22,467 debt.

Reached Wednesday night, Aren Platt, a consultant who works for Carmichael, said that he would soon speak with foundation president Michael Plaskin, “but things are certainly moving in the right direction."

The letter, which was published on the district’s website on Wednesday, came after a flood of attention — most of it negative — that resulted from wide publicity of the district’s previous actions.

Earlier this month, hundreds of letters went out to families whose children had outstanding school-lunch debts.

“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch. 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 school district’s director of federal programs, Joseph Muth, wrote in the letter, according to the Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice. "If you are taken to Dependency Court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.… Please remit payment as soon as possible to avoid being reported to the proper authorities.”

Carmichael, who grew up poor and receiving free lunch, was outraged at what he called “lunch shaming," and asked Platt to act on his behalf, reaching out to district officials to settle the debt.

When Platt reached Wyoming Valley West school board president Joseph Mazur, Mazur said he would not accept the offer because he believed it was the families’ responsibility to pay. They could afford the fees, Mazur added.

“His counter was, ‘These are affluent families who just want to get something for free,’” Platt said. “This wasn’t ever about repayment of a debt. It was about shaming people.”

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, 64 percent of Wyoming Valley West children live below the poverty line. In fact, the district’s poverty rate is so high that come fall, all students will be eligible for free breakfast and lunch.

The board’s letter said that in addition to Carmichael, others offered to donate.

“Your generosity is overwhelming,” the board wrote.

Earlier, board members had taken a different tone.

“It’s a fundamental obligation of parents to house, feed, and clothe their children,” Charles Coslett, an attorney and school board member, told the Citizens’ Voice. “It’s not our obligation. This nanny-state mentality is troubling to me.”

Board members, in the letter, emphasized that children were served regular lunches even when they did not pay.

“No shaming occurred, and no alternate meals were provided,” the board wrote. “Again, please accept our sincere apology for any harm or inconvenience the letter caused.”