EDITORIAL: A lesson in Pa. poverty

York Dispatch Editorial Board
FILE - In this Thursday, May 4, 2017 file photo, a third-grader punches in her student identification to pay for a meal at Gonzales Community School in Santa Fe, N.M. All students are offered the same lunch at Gonzales and other Santa Fe public schools to avoid any chance of embarrassing students whose parents may have fallen behind on meal payments. In April 2017, New Mexico became the first state to outlaw the shaming of children for any unpaid meals. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

A Pennsylvania school district is taking some well-deserved lumps after a ham-handed attempt to collect about $22,000 in delinquent fees for school lunches.

The Wyoming Valley West School District near Wilkes-Barre fired off letters last week that warned parents that their children could wind up in foster care if they did not pay overdue school lunch bills.

To no one’s surprise with the possible exception of Wyoming Valley West School District officials, parents quickly responded — not with payments but with complaints. District school board members did likewise.

The threat was, thankfully, rescinded after calmer heads prevailed, but there is little evidence one of those heads sat on the shoulders of Wyoming Valley West’s lawyer, Charles Coslett, who initially defended the letter.

More:Parents told they could lose kids over unpaid school lunches

More:‘Lunch shaming’ faces scrutiny across the country

“Hopefully, that gets their attention and it certainly did, didn’t it?” Coslett told WYOU-TV. “… (S)ome parents cried foul because he or she doesn’t want to pay a debt attributed to feeding their kids. How shameful.”

Coslett took the word right out of our mouths.

“Shameful” is exactly how to describe a policy that threatens to take children from their families. And it’s exactly how to describe the presumptuous statement that families “(don’t) want to pay a debt attributed to feeding their kids.”

As a well-compensated attorney, Coslett likely doesn’t face this problem but there are many families in Pennsylvania — many families — that have trouble putting food on the table. In fact, according to the Community Action Association of Pennsylvania’s Poverty Snapshot, “affording food is a problem for more than 12 percent of Pennsylvania households.”

Indeed, the district estimated some 1,000 parents were behind on school-meal payments — a likely reflection of the 15 percent poverty rate in the district’s home of Luzerne County.

Coslett’s troubling statements did not end there. As reported in The Morning Call: “Coslett said Wednesday he was prepared to take legal action against parents who refused to pay lunch bills and would cross-examine them on whether they spent money on unnecessary items, such as lottery tickets or alcoholic beverages.”

That’s an uncomfortable echo of Trump administration proposals to dictate what foods food-stamp recipients can purchase.

It is also unnecessary. Starting in the fall, all students will receive free lunches because more than 60 percent of those in the district now qualify.

So, going the sledgehammer route to collect a relative pittance — district residents approved a new budget last month that topped $81 million — was a questionable use of resources from the start as well as an unqualified PR disaster.

District officials ought to come at the issue from another, more productive angle. If there are hundreds of families unable to meet lunch costs, the thinking should focus on serving community need, not immigration-border-type threats. The upcoming districtwide free lunches are one such example.

It is no secret that being poor can be expensive. Late-payment fees, additional charges reflecting poor or no credit, public transportation costs — these and a variety of other challenges take their toll in terms of not just dollars, but time and stress. And the outright criminalization of poverty, from imprisoning those who can’t afford even modest parole to relying on excessive fees and fines to finance public safety (as was egregiously practiced in Ferguson, Mo.) has likewise been widely documented.

These are examples to learn from, not emulate.

To their credit, Wyoming Valley West school officials quickly reassessed and rescinded their unfortunate threat. The challenge now is for them — and school officials statewide — to find ways to support rather than victimize those for whom providing regular meals is a daily challenge.