District must re­pay school meal funds

Ox­nard Union owes the govern­ment $5.6 mil­lion for meals that didn’t ex­ist. Charges are pos­si­ble.

Los Angeles Times - - Obituaries - Steve Chawkins steve.chawkins@ latimes.com

An Ox­nard school district charged the state and fed­eral gov­ern­ments at least $5.6 mil­lion for dis­tribut­ing school meals that never ex­isted, ac­cord­ing to a twoyear in­ves­ti­ga­tion trig­gered by district of­fi­cials.

The Ox­nard Union High School District must now come up with the missing funds and is at­tempt­ing to work out a re­pay­ment sched­ule with the state Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, said Jack Parham, an at­tor­ney for the district. Mean­while, the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s of­fice of the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, which pays for dis­counted and free stu­dent meals, is weigh­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of crim­i­nal charges.

Most of the re­im­burse­ment for phan­tom meals was used to pay for kitchen ex­penses and cap­i­tal im­prove­ments, Parham said. Roughly $350,000 is un­ac­counted for — but so, he said, are the records that would pro­vide a more ac­cu­rate es­ti­mate.

Sus­pi­cions about food ser­vice in the 16,500-stu­dent district sur­faced in a work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion claim filed by an ac­coun­tant who said he left his job be­cause of stress. Af­ter con­fer­ring with lo­cal pros­e­cu­tors and the Ven­tura County Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion, the school board com­mis­sioned an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by Vi­centi, Lloyd & Stutz­man, a Glendora CPA firm that spe­cial­izes in school fraud al­le­ga­tions.

The firm’s 150-page re­port con­cluded that, from 2005 to 2009, food ser­vice man­agers at the district’s schools in­flated their cafe­te­ria sales by 100 to 800 meals a day. The district’s top food ser­vice of­fi­cials — un­named in the re­port — had given or­ders to es­ti­mate based on the per­cent­age of stu­dents el­i­gi­ble for dis­counts.

The re­port cited spotty train­ing pro­ce­dures — which, it notes, have since im­proved — and what may have been de­lib­er­ate dis­re­gard by top food ser­vice of­fi­cials.

In hind­sight, some of the over­sights seem glar­ing: In 2005-06, re­im­burse­ment for meals jumped by more than 52%, even though en­roll­ment was vir­tu­ally flat.

The ac­coun­tants said that man­agers bring­ing in more money could have been se­cur­ing their jobs — or feath­er­ing their nests.

The re­port notes that ex­tra cash would al­low for over­pay­ing ven­dors and “the pos­si­bil­ity of kick­backs.”

“We be­lieve there was crim­i­nal ac­tion here, but we can’t prove it,” said Parham. Many of the man­agers in­volved in the over­billing no longer work for the district, he said.

The district’s teach­ers have taken pay cuts and the school year has been trimmed by eight days.

Its cafe­te­rias now op­er­ate about $200,000 in the red — down from a sur­plus of $2 mil­lion dur­ing the al­leged scam.

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