The California Department of Education says it has ordered eight districts to repay about $170 million to programs that offer free and reduced-price school meals after an investigation concluded that they had misspent the funds to pay for other expenses such as salaries and equipment, reports the Capitol Weekly and other outlets.
The report from the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes, titled "Food Fight: Small team of state examiners no match for schools that divert student meal funds," charges that the diversions "contributed to conditions that discouraged the target population—poor, often hungry students—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 manage an optimum food service operation."
The bulk of the money—$158 million—is attributed to Los Angeles USD. In response, the district issued the following statement:
"LAUSD has fully supported the cafeteria and meals program. LAUSD serves 650,000 meals a day and leads the nation in meal quality and nutritional content. All children were served meals and no child was ever denied a meal due to this past accounting issue.
"The District and California Department of Education (CDE) have been working cooperatively to clarify the accounting methodology to ensure full compliance to Federal and State guidelines. All disputed costs for the years in question have been adjusted accordingly.
"The District looks forward to success with state education officials in this work to find a more rational approach to accounting and compliance guidelines for all schools statewide."
LAUSD's Director of Foodservices David Binkle emphasizes that the report addresses an issue that has already been resolved. "The money has already been put back into the program," he says. The district and state are currently trying to finalize a memorandum of understanding on the accounting and compliance guidelines referenced in the district statement above, he adds.
Other districts districts being ordered to repay funds include San Diego, Santa Ana, San Francisco, Baldwin Park, Centinela Valley and Compton. San Diego and Santa Ana are challenging the findings, which would force them to repay $4.5 million and $2.7 million, respectively.
The cases cited may only represent a fraction of the problem as the state doesn't have enough oversight resources to monitor its nearly 3,000 school districts, the report added. In fact, most of the investigations were prompted by whistleblowers.
The Department of Education says it plans to hire and train more staff to monitor district meal programs and conduct more frequent reviews later this year.