School districts misuse student meal program funds, report says

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Eight school districts have illegally misappropriated funding for student meal programs, according to a report released last week by the California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes.

The school districts, which include those of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, have been ordered to repay nearly $170 million to refund student meal programs.

The investigation revealed inappropriate expenditures, such as the use of Los Angeles Unified School District’s cafeteria funds to buy lawn sprinklers and pay salaries of employees at the district television station.

Monica Carazo, a spokesperson for Los Angeles United School District, said that despite the lapse in compliance with federal and state guidelines, “no child was ever denied a meal due to this past accounting issue.”

Guidelines require that student meal funds are maintained in a separate cafeteria account and used only for student meal programs.

“It’s so clearly defined,” said Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson Mark Coplan of the delineation between funds. “I’m surprised districts would say that the guidelines aren’t clear, because from our end, it’s beyond clear.”

The State Department of Education routinely sends bulletins to schools across the state outlining accounting procedures. It also regularly holds seminars on financial rules and regulations, according to Jim Sweeney, a principal consultant for the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes and author of the report.

“There’s no shortage of material on this subject,” he said.

Although state oversight teams are in place, they remain largely understaffed and overworked, according to the report. The California Department of Education has acknowledged that most misappropriations probably go undiscovered as a result.

Most of the recent cases of misappropriation have been discovered by whistleblowers, but the report also notes that there is incentive for food service directors to not speak out.

“Those districts that are doing it illegally are playing hardball with it,” said Lynette Rock, food service director at Torrance Unified School District, in the report. “They say, ‘You want to contact the state and let them know that we’re cheating? That’s fine. How long do you want your job?’”

Going forward, the report recommended conducting an assessment of food services’ workload and staffing needs, simplifying guidelines and publicizing enforcement actions for misappropriation of cafeteria funds. Still, enforcement will be difficult, as K-12 budget cuts press districts to cut corners, the report states.

“It’s hugely disappointing to learn that funds have been used in this way,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. “The report’s findings suggest that this can be fixed by simple adherence to the governing codes, and unless the Legislature is satisfied of a commitment by administrators to change current practice, we will be forced to look at legislative means to enforce adherence.”

Contact Mia Shaw at [email protected]