At a time when the performance of public schools â academically, economically, and in terms of test scores and matriculation â is under the microscope for reasons both financial and educational, it behooves the administrators and staff of those public schools to step it up, meet the challenges, and do so with transparency, integrity, and a prioritized concern for the children in their care. Frankly, thatâs the least youâd expect from a school system fully funded by government and taxpayer dollars: help them learn, teach them productive behavior, and for those on the school lunch program, get them healthily fed.
That last one, the one about the food, should be the easiest to implement. The State of California allots money for operational and food costs for school cafeterias with a program to provide free or reduced-priced lunches to low-income students. Given that numerous studies have shown a link between proper nutrition and academic achievement, the expectation is that the money for that program will prioritize fresh, healthy food for school lunches and encourage students to eatâŠ to be better equipped physically to do well in class.
Beyond that, thereâs also the epidemic of childhood obesity (âThe percentage of children aged 6â11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2010. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12â19 years who were obese increased from 5% to 18% over the same periodâ). The many concerns surrounding this growing health problem demand that funded school lunches help make inroads by offering healthful choices like fresh fruits and vegetables, with a minimum of processed food items. Eligible families and teachers rely on their school cafeterias to provide just that.
And they doâŠdonât they?
Turns out, not so much. At least not in California. In a âstrongly worded reportâ by the California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes titled, Food Fight: Small team of state examiners no match for schools that divert student meal funds, the Los Angeles Unified School District, amongst many others throughout the state, has been cited for illegally siphoning money from cafeteria funds to cover other expenses. School districts named in the bill include Baldwin Park, Oxnard, Santa Ana, San Diego, San Francisco and Compton. The Centinela Valley high school district serving Lawndale and Hawthorne is also named, âthough officials there say they were dinged for a technicality and are being unfairly lumped in with the others.â [Source: Daily News]
But, not surprisingly given its size, the Los Angeles Unified School District has been singled out as the most egregious violator, with misappropriations of up to $158 million (out of a state total of $170 million). The already financially-strapped school district, impacted by historic funding shortfalls brought on by the nationwide economic downturn of previous years, has been ordered to repay the staggering sum.
And while the report stated than none of the schools involved could be accused of outright embezzlement for personal profit, the âredistributionâ of dollars had a significant and deleterious impact. From a section in the report titled, âStudents Shortchangedâ:
Cafeteria fund diversions documented in this report contributed to conditions that discouraged the target population â poor, often hungry students â from seeking free or reduced-price meals.
Cost-saving shortcuts included serving processed rather than fresh foods, short lunch periods, rundown cafeterias and insufficient staff to properly plan and manager an optimum food service operation. [Emphasis added.]
Los Angeles Unified, for example, has 20- and 30-minute lunch periods at many schools and continues to struggle with low participation rates among eligible students. A former Santa Ana Unified food service director said âthe food was terribleâ and the meal program was woefully understaffed although the district had amassed an illegal $16 million surplus in its cafeteria account.
The Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes found that state and federal checks fail to catch most violators and that whistleblowers may be silenced by realistic fears of retaliation.
Dear God, what are we talking about there? A public school system or the Mob? Iâm struck by the language of the report and beyond âfears of retaliation,â find it stunning that school administrators would so callously disregard the health needs of their students in lieu ofâŠwhat? If not outright embezzlement, what was the cafeteria fund money spent on?
âExpenses such as lawn sprinklers and the salaries of employees at the districtâs television station.â [Source. Emphasis added.]
Ah. Lawn sprinklers. Thatâs worth a hundred million or so dollars worth of hungry kids.
And, it turns out, there was some hardcore fraud beyond this ârepurposingâ of funds:
Still, the state office cites instances of outright fraud. Perhaps most egregiously, the Oxnard Union High School District inflated its subsidized meal counts, thereby claiming millions of dollars in state and federal reimbursements to which it was not entitled, the report states. The district â which consists of six high schools â was ordered to repay the meal programs $5.6 million. The last installment was made last year.
Good to know theyâre getting it repaid. Nothing like your childâs school being the hub of integrity and high moral characterâŠso reassuring. And, speaking of which, what is the status of the criminal aspect of this? In the corporate world this sort of âmisappropriatingâ would likely come with a stiff jail sentence. Whatâs in store for these errant school districts and their administrators? From the report:
Deliberate misuse of cafeteria money is a crime, although rarely, if ever, prosecuted. Federal law provides up to a $25,000 fine and/or five years in prison, for âwillful malfeasanceâ of cafeteria funds. Yet, federal officials said they were unaware of any school officials ever prosecuted for intentionally diverting meal funds to cover other district expenses. [âŠ ]
The push to divert cafeteria funds for other purposes has created career-threatening conflicts in some districts, according to leaders of the California School Nutrition Association, a professional organization that includes many food service directors.
âThose districts that are doing it illegal (sic) are playing hard ball with it,â said Lynette Rock, food service director at Torrance Unified and president-elect of the nutrition association. âThey say, âYou want to contact the state and let them know weâre cheating? Thatâs fine. How long do you want your job?ââ
Nice. Also very mob-like. Conducive work environment for an honest person just trying to do right by the kids.
The question here is, once the fines have been paid, the misappropriating hands slapped, and the fresh food finally put on the kidsâ plates where it belongs, what is to prevent this sort of chicanery from happening again? Itâs tough in public schools; there are a lot of expenses and not enough money. What happens when those lawn sprinklers need fixinâ and the funds arenât there?
The report concludes with a recommendation that the state Department of Education get involved with assessing the food services oversight team to determine their true staffing and work load demands. And, if needed, as would likely be needed, request appropriate federal funding to properly implement those needs. An annual school audit should be required, food service directors should be given access to the cafeteria financial records, and strict guidelines should be prepared with enforcement actions broadly publicizedâŠ âto encourage compliance.â
Frankly, itâs discouraging that the adults in the room have to be warned, wrangled, and âencouragedâ to do the right thing for the children in their charge. But when feeding those children is deprioritized to somewhere below lawn sprinklers and TV staff, it seems the âsoul of the educatorâ has been sold to the pockets of the bean-counter. Never a good trade-off.
Letâs get these kids fed, for Godâs sake. And in the meantime, Iâm thinking Federal law might want to re-think their policy on academic prosecution.
[To read the full report of Food Fight: Small team of state examiners no match for schools that divert student meal funds, click here.]