STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Dozens of families in Pennsylvania received an alarming letter from their public school district this month. The letter said if your kid's lunch debt is not paid, your child could be removed from your home and placed in foster care. Officials are defending this threat, saying it was a necessary form of debt collection. Here's NPR's Bobby Allyn.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Wyoming Valley West School District is located in a former coal-mining town in northeastern Pennsylvania. Many people there just call it the Valley. It's one of the poorest districts in the state. So when officials saw that about 40 families owed some $20,000 to the district over unpaid cafeteria meals, they tried to get their money back. That's according to Joseph Mazur. He's the president of the district's board of education.
JOSEPH MAZUR: ...By mail, email, robo-calls, personal calls and letters.
ALLYN: But nothing worked. That's when district officials sent out the now-infamous letter. It told parents that if their kids keep going to school without lunch money, they could be sent to dependency court for neglecting their children. County officials criticized the letter, pointing out that the foster care system should be used only when children are abused or in danger, not as a weapon to collect money. But Mazur defended the letter.
MAZUR: I think you have to pay your bills. I mean, I've been paying my bills all my life. And you know what I mean - and everybody else. I mean, sometimes you have to do without something for yourself if want to raise your kids and see that they're taken care of.
ALLYN: The $20,000 owed is a tiny fraction of the school district's $80 million annual budget. But Mazur says times are tough for Wyoming Valley West.
MAZUR: We are in the process of trying to save money wherever we can. We have laid off some employees. We've reduced some of our curriculum. And we're looking anywhere where we can save - I don't care if it's a thousand dollars or 20,000.
ALLYN: Bill Vinsko, a lawyer in the district who used to work in local government, says while the area's weak tax base does put a strain on local schools, many households are struggling, too, trying to get by on low-wage jobs.
BILL VINSKO: And then they get a letter saying that their kids may be taken away from them. It's petrifying for them.
ALLYN: Mazur with the school district says petrifying people can help collect debt.
MAZUR: Was the letter little strong? Maybe, yes. But it did work because they're paid.
ALLYN: Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania called that logic callous. He said in a statement that no child should have to imagine being ripped away from their parents just because their family can't pay their bills.
Bobby Allyn, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.