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District plans independent investigation of discarded school lunches

Published February 18, 2014 9:38 am

SLC board's decision follows complaints and mistrust from public.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

After weeks of complaints from parents, leaders of the Salt Lake City School District board are launching an independent audit into why dozens of students had their cafeteria lunches thrown away last month.

The board's president, Kristi Swett, sent an email to other board members Sunday about the matter. The board likely will discuss the reasons for and the scope of the audit at its study session Tuesday night, said Heather Bennett, board vice president.

"I strongly believe that the public requires further reassurance that the district has acted appropriately in investigating this matter," Swett wrote in the letter. "Questions still remain regarding who or what was responsible for the situation and what actions should be taken as a result of that determination.

"I have complete faith that district leaders have been forthcoming and honest in their response to and investigation of this matter," she also wrote. "Nonetheless, having that belief tested by an independent entity will serve to repair the public's trust in the district's integrity and commitment to its students."

The decision follows outrage from parents over the initial incident and the district's subsequent investigation. Parents have complained that the district's internal investigation targeted the wrong people and is taking an unnecessarily long time.

The district has not yet finished its investigation.

"There are individuals in the community that have raised questions about the process of investigating. … " Bennett said Monday. "They seem to not trust the process of investigating. That's the reason why we're asking for an external auditor."

The district has been criticized locally and nationally since as many as 40 Uintah Elementary students had their lunches taken and thrown away last month because their parents were behind on payments. The kids were given fruit and milk instead.

The district apologized and changed its procedures, pledging to serve only full meals from now on, regardless of parents' debt. The district also enhanced its electronic payment-notification system after many parents said they didn't know they were behind. District leaders also told lunch workers to no longer discuss payments with kids, but only with parents.

Two employees — Uintah's cafeteria manager and her district-level supervisor — were put on paid leave, but have since returned to work. Many parents believed the school's beloved cafeteria manager was scapegoated for a practice that has happened elsewhere in the district.

Parents have been frustrated by the district's lack of comment on who made the decision to yank kids' lunches. District spokesman Jason Olsen has said that's under investigation.

Uintah parent Erica Lukes, whose daughter had her lunch taken, said she's happy to hear of the external audit. She and other parents question the role of the district's child-nutrition department head in the incident.

She also wants to know what Superintendent McKell Withers has been doing about the situation and whether the district could have done more to deflect attention from the school when it started receiving threats.

"Everything was handled so poorly, and it's very apparent this started from the top down," Lukes said. "There was just a lack of responsibility all the way around."

Uintah parent Kevin Conway, whose daughter also had her lunch taken, applauded the notion of an independent audit.

"You can't have your own people investigating themselves or their boss, and that's basically what they've been doing," Conway said. "A very critical eye needs to be looking at how the Salt Lake City district runs itself and spends tax dollars."

Bennett said Monday the child-nutrition department has never been in charge of the investigation. She said human resources has been leading it.

It's a claim, however, some find hard to believe, including fellow board member Michael Clara. He notes that an initial Feb. 4 report to the board came from Kelly Orton, director of the district's Department of Child Nutrition, not human resources.

Still, Clara is gratified to see the board hiring an independent auditor. Clara wrote a letter to Swett on Friday calling for an independent investigation. Bennett said Monday she and Swett had wanted an independent audit done before Clara sent his letter.

In his letter, Clara asks what responsibility the superintendent, Uintah principal and other administrators bear for the lunch incident.

"I am sure you are aware that the community at large has lost confidence in the leadership of the district," Clara wrote, "as it appears that the bureaucracy is just protecting itself and has no interest in reaching the truth in this matter."

Bennett said she doesn't know how much an audit will cost or whether the internal investigation will continue.

"There isn't a single person in the district administration who doesn't feel terrible about the way events unfolded at Uintah on that day," Bennett said. "We acted very quickly to write clear procedures that would prevent that from happening again and that's what we can do at the moment."

lschencker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lschencker —

What's next?

The Salt Lake City School District board likely will discuss having independent audit of the school lunch incident at a study session Tuesday night. The public portion of the study session begins at 6:30 p.m. and will be at the district offices, 440 E. 100 South, Salt Lake City.