In an about-face, the Pennsylvania school district that threatened to place children in foster care over past-due cafeteria bills is now accepting donations following its initial rejection of those who offered help, a decision that left many observers puzzled.
Wyoming Valley West, a financially struggling school district about three hours north of Philadelphia, was initially not interested in charitable contributions after the school district sent letters to dozens of families demanding lunch money payments. The district said the families faced the possibility of being taken to court over the custody of their children.
But in a statement released Wednesday evening, the president of the school district's board, Joseph Mazur, apologized for the letter's "tone."
"It wasn't the intention of the district to harm or inconvenience any of the families of our school district," Mazur said.
People who tried to contact school officials to donate the full $22,000 that was owed said they were bewildered that they weren't getting replies from the school district.
Now, Mazur said the district will take money that has been offered.
State Rep. Aaron Kaufer, whose state district includes the school district, visited the school district's central office in Kingston, Pa., on Wednesday and persuaded the school district's board members to welcome charitable gifts.
Kaufer said there appeared to be some infighting among the board members about accepting outside money to cover the meal debt, but the precise reason for donors being ignored was not clear.
"I don't understand either," said Kaufer in an interview with NPR. "Nobody likes to see this kind of black-eye story in their area, but I want to see this issue resolved. This is not why we want to see northeastern Pennsylvania in the news."
The school district will take money to satisfy cafeteria debts through a foundation dedicated to providing financial assistance to the school district, officials said.
"The whole situation is a real shame," said Michael Plaksin, a graduate of the Pennsylvania school district who now lives in the Los Angeles area and is the president of the Wyoming Valley West Educational Foundation. "Everyone with any association with Wyoming Valley West wants this chapter closed as quickly as possible."
County officials told NPR that at least five donors stepped forward willing to pay the students' debt. A prominent media figure was among those who expressed interested in donating. In addition, Todd Carmichael, the Philadelphia-based chief executive of coffee roaster company La Colombe, wanted to clear up the district's entire delinquent meal tab.
Since last week's news of the letters triggered a national uproar, prompting condemnations from one of Pennsylvania's U.S. senators, the state's lieutenant governor and others, the school district has agreed to drop the foster care threat in the face of harsh criticism from officials who oversee the foster care system.
And school officials said that because the poverty level among students in the former coal mining region has risen, new federal nutrition assistance is expected to cover meals for all students, regardless of their family's economic means.
"All meals served to students were chosen by the students from our regular menu. No shaming occurred and no alternate meals were provided," Mazur said in the statement on Wednesday. "Please accept our sincere apology for any harm or inconvenience the letter caused."