Ismail Smith-Wade-El

Ismail Smith-Wade-El

Public school lunch debt should not exist. It’s not a concept that should even be countenanced — because every institution should be organized around the surviving and thriving of our children first, and how to collect petty debts second. This should be obvious, but recent news has made it clear that it’s necessary to reinforce this idea. 

Wyoming Valley West School District of Luzerne County recently sent letters home to the parents of about 1,000 students who owed money for their children’s lunches. The total owed was about $22,000.

These letters essentially threatened these families with the loss of their children, saying that failing to pay the lunch debts was tantamount to failing to provide sustenance to their children. Thus, the children were at risk of being removed from homes by Luzerne County Children and Youth Services, the school stated. (Luzerne County Children and Youth Services was not consulted.)

The district described the wildly inappropriate and, frankly, fallacious letter as a “last resort.” But let’s be clear: This is $22 per student, on average. Municipal and school district budgets can be very tight, but there’s no situation in which $22 represents an emergency that warrants tearing apart a family.

Imagine being a parent in that school district — struggling to provide for your family — and coming home to a letter telling you that you might lose your kids over a debt smaller than the cost of a tank of gas. Some families owe significantly more than that, but since it’s an average, some owe less.

This school district and its administrators, who have been criticized by everyone from U.S. Sen. Bob Casey to the director of Luzerne County Children and Youth Services, should be embarrassed by the choice to frighten economically disadvantaged parents to balance their budget. The district solicitor went so far as to say he would take families to court and cross-examine them over whether they bought lottery tickets or alcohol.

According to reports, the largest debt owed by any family was about $450. Between court costs and the district solicitor’s hourly fee, it’s hard to imagine that the money spent pursuing debt payments would be much less than the debt owed. Of course, the court and solicitor would likely pass this cost on to an already struggling family, pushing it further from any ability to keep up with future debts.

Further, the school district initially refused multiple offers from generous donors to clear this debt on behalf of the parents. Those initial refusals — coupled with the solicitor’s litigious threats — paint a picture of a district more interested in enforcing its notions of who is and isn’t deserving than the concepts of compassion, expediency or financial wholeness.

The truth is, however, that we should all be embarrassed. How many elements of our society function in exactly this way, punishing poor people further for being poor? Elements like compounding fees, interest rates and citations that disproportionately impact families already struggling.

Lunch shaming is a particularly reprehensible form of this trend in the way our society is organized, but certainly not the only one. These are reflections of our failure to prioritize the feeding of children — metonymy for the basic needs of human life and dignity — over pettier concerns.

This societal fumbling of moral concerns in favor of financial ones is a cruelty itself, one that forces institutions like school districts to pass privation of basic needs along to the children and families that have come to rely on them.

Wyoming Valley West School District has relented. After significant public pressure, it will accept contributions to pay off these debts. But relying on the charity of wealthy people to pay off debts that shouldn’t exist in the first place is more a symptom of sickness than a reason to celebrate.

In the upcoming year, Wyoming Valley West will provide school lunch to all students, free of charge, now that more than 60% of students qualify for the free or reduced price lunch program. This is good, but should not have been an issue to wait around for in the first place. All public school districts should do as the School District of Lancaster does and provide lunch to any student who wants it, without passing on petty debts to children just trying to learn.

It is further incumbent on our state Legislature to fund our schools so that this — and so much more — can be possible without increasing the tax burden (which must nonsensically be applied at a uniform rate in Pennsylvania) on the most vulnerable families in our communities.

Schools are about education, not just in the classroom curriculum, but in the messages implicit in the environment provided for students. No one should be embarrassed or shamed or threatened to get what they need to survive and thrive. Each school in Pennsylvania should be committed to sending this message first and foremost.

Ismail Smith-Wade-El is a member of Lancaster City Council.