As demand for subsidized school meals went unfulfilled, K-12 districts diverted food service money for other purposes such as a new roof and sprinklers, a new state Senate report finds.
Public schools provide 2.4 million free or reduced-price lunches every day in a system that serves 6 million schoolchildren in California. The federal government provides the bulk of funding at $2 billion, with an additional $145 million annually from the state, the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes report says.
But the federal government relies on California Department of Education officials to monitor school lunch programs and ensure the money is being spent appropriately. CDE has required eight districts to repay nearly $170 million in meal money, but the report says the education department is ill-equipped to ensure compliance and that districts may be raiding those funds on a broader scale.
At Los Angeles Unified School District, officials used meal money to pay for sprinklers and operations at a district television station. The district redirected funds for at least a decade but was caught after a whistleblower came forward and is now paying $158 million plus more than $1 million in interest, the report says. For six years ending in 2010-11, the district provided subsidized meals to 51 percent to 60 percent of children eligible, below the statewide average during that period.
Elsewhere, Santa Ana Unified ran up a $16 million lunch money surplus and spent $2.4 million in "disallowed charges" on district employees and a roof project.
The report recommends several changes, such as reviewing whether CDE has enough oversight staff and requiring annual audits of cafeteria funds.
PHOTO CREDIT: A student takes food during lunch at the Rosemont High School cafeteria in Rosemont on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011. Randall Benton / Sacramento Bee file, 2011