Audit reveals RBUSD meal count problems
by Mark McDermott
A state audit has revealed missing records from the Redondo Unified School District food services and has resulted in the withholding of state and federal funds from the district’s reduced and free lunch program, pending corrective action.
Officials from the California Department of Education’s nutrition services division made two unannounced inspections of RBUSD campuses – one last June and another in September – after receiving an anonymous complaint about the potential misappropriation of funds. Their subsequent audit showed that the district did not have the documentation required for all the students receiving free and reduced meals.
“We found some significant concerns about the integrity of their meal claims,” said Phyllis Bramson-Paul, the Department of Education’s director of nutrition services.
RBUSD Chief Business Official Janet Redella said that the paperwork was not kept under lock and key and some documentation disappeared.
“We fed those kids as free and reduced kids,” Redella said. “The kids are there – the paperwork is not. Some of those applications are missing, and we did not secure those applications like we should have. There are a lot of details for filing for free and reduced meals, and one of them is you have to maintain those files in a secure place, for a very good reason. They should be treated like cash.”
RBUSD Superintendent Steven Keller acknowledged that mistakes were made.
“We own the mistake, we are embarrassed by the mistake, we are transparent about our mistake, and we have fixed our mistake,” said Superintendent Steven Keller. “We are moving forward, and we won’t let it happen again.”
The state’s Department of Education administers federal funds intended for free and reduced lunch programs. Out of each $3 meal, $2.68 is subsidized, mostly federally – the state contributes 40¢ per meal. For reduced meals, the federal contribution is $2.28 and the state’s is 22¢. Nearly 12 percent of RBUSD’s nearly 8,000 students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
According to Bramson-Paul, the meal subsidy administered by the state to RBUSD is between $85,000 and $100,000 per month. In order to qualify, the district must provide students nutritionally balanced meals and document both its menus and the qualifying students’ applications for free and reduced meals.
Bramson-Paul said that missing documentation included both menus and applications. The original complaint, she said, accused the district of fraud, but that has not been proven by the state’s investigation.
“We are not at a point where we can determine what the cause of the problem is, and we don’t have any reason to believe that – fraud means there is intent, and I don’t think we are necessarily seeing that,” she said. “We are at a point now where we are just trying to get the problem corrected.”
At the campuses they visited, state officials found 1,760 free and reduced meal applications, 147 applications with incomplete information, and 114 students who were receiving subsidized meals without applications on file.
Redella said that that the district’s nutrition records are now under lock and key. She said she believed the allegations made in the complaint – that meal counts were inflated – would be proven wrong as this year’s numbers align with previous years’ applications. Redella said that checks performed on students who received free and reduced meals without corresponding documentation on file showed that those students had qualified in previous years.
“We are missing paper,” Redella said. “We didn’t make up those kids.”
Bramson-Paul said that the Department of Education will issue a report in March and that if RBUSD has taken corrective measures, the district could be reimbursed for this year’s meals. The district could, however, still owe money from last year.
“There are two issues here,” Bramson-Paul said. “Once we know they have an adequate system in place, will we will release, retroactively, funds we have withheld? The answer is yes. The second question is do they owe the federal government money for meals they have claimed that are not supportable? Yes. But I have no idea what that amount is going to be.”
Lacey Middough, the district’s director of food services, has announced her resignation effective Feb. 15. In a brief interview this week, she expressed disappointment over the missing documentation but stressed that corrective actions had been put in place. She said her departure was not related to the audit.
“I have absolutely enjoyed my time here at RBUSD,” Middough said. “The children, the community, and the staff members are fantastic and great supporters of the food service department. I’m considering options as I move forward.”
Middough has been with the district two and a half years. Under her tenure, RBUSD has implemented a program that stresses healthier eating habits among students. Student diets have shown a measurable increase in fresh fruits and vegetables.
Keller praised Middough’s efforts on behalf of the school district.
“Lacey has been a valued team member,” Keller said. “She is one of the more popular administrators in our district, and I hate to see her go. We will support her as she moves forward.” ER