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Kids wait in line for lunch at Normandie Avenue Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has been ordered to pay back more than $158 million that was supposed to go for free and reduced lunches but that state officials say was spent on lawn sprinklers, staff salaries at the district's television station and other improper uses over a six-year period.
A report by the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes released Wednesday morning said LAUSD was among eight districts ordered to repay funds recently. It was by far the biggest violator, according to audits by the California Department of Education. The other seven districts combined were ordered to repay about $11 million. Two are contesting the findings.
“From my point of view, they are literally taking food out of the mouth of kids,” Richard Zeiger, chief deputy state superintendent of public instruction, was quoted in the report as saying. “They say, ‘Well, we can do it cheaper.’ I say you should do it better.”
The report said districts would save money by serving processed foods, limiting the number of kids who were fed by shortening lunch periods and not staffing cafeterias properly. The excess money would then be spent on other priorities.
The report said that for over a decade LAUSD's own auditors had raised a red flags that the money was being misspent, but the district continued misappropriating cafeteria funds until a district employee raised concerns The district has agreed to repay the $158 million, plus interest, to its cafeteria fund. But it will not be forced to repay millions more that it diverted before auditors raised concerns, according to the report.
Among the other school districts cited in the report were Baldwin Park, Centinella Valley, Compton, Santa Ana and San Diego.
California public schools serve 3 million lunches every day. The National School Lunch Program subsidizes 80 percent of those, paying up to $2.94 for each free lunch. It also pays $1.85 for each free breakfast served.
Deliberate misuse of cafeteria money is a federal crime, carrying a maximum five years in prison and a $25,000 fine. But according to the report, it is rarely prosecuted.
The report, entitled "Food Fight: Small team of state examiners no match for
schools that divert student meal funds" calls for greater scrutiny of how districts use the funds.