A report commissioned by the state Senate has exposed a little-noticed problem that investigators suspect could be a prevalent scam: school districts improperly siphoning school meals revenue to cover other expenses.
According to the report by the California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes, some districts have cut corners on the federally subsidized school lunch and breakfast programs – by operating rundown facilities, serving processed instead of fresh food, going shorthanded in the kitchen – in order to build big surpluses in their meals budgets. The districts then have spent the surplus money on other things: in the case of Los Angeles Unified, lawn sprinklers and salaries at a district-run TV station. There’s no indication that personal graft was involved.
In the last few years, the state Department of Education, which is charged with monitoring the meals operations, has ordered eight districts to repay student meal programs $170 million. Los Angeles Unified was the biggest culprit; it’s repaying $158 million. But, as indicated by the title of the report – “Food Fight: Small team of state examiners no match for schools that divert student meal funds” – the Senate investigators surmise that many more districts are doing the same thing. In most of the eight cases, district whistleblowers fed information to state auditors.
In the report and in a press release issued on Wednesday, Chief Deputy Superintendent Richard Zeiger acknowledged the problem and promised stricter oversight. “Our goal is to be sure every dollar set aside to feed California’s children is spent for that purpose, and that purpose alone,” he said. “While our previous monitoring efforts primarily emphasized food nutrition, program eligibility, civil rights protections, and U.S. Department of Agriculture food requirements, we are increasing our focus on oversight of cafeteria fund expenditures.”
The department has 60 field examiners to inspect the operations of 3,000 school districts and other meal providers, the report said. Most of the inspectors are nutritionists, not auditors or accountants, and do but a cursory look at the programs’ books, the report said. The department has said it would send in its own auditors and train nutritionists and other field inspectors to review financial records. The Senate report recommends asking the federal government to cover costs of additional inspections and audits.
“Deliberate misuse of cafeteria money is a crime, although rarely, if ever, prosecuted,” the report noted.
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