City schools food bills top $1 million

In Baltimore schools, the cost of doing business can often be found on a plate — eggs Benedict or a French-toast buffet for breakfast, crab cakes or beef Wellington for lunch, and chocolate-covered strawberries for dessert.

The school district racked up $1 million in food bills between 2010 and 2012, according to catering charges on administrative accounts at central headquarters.

The records show a range of spending and menus, from $9.24 for cookies and juice for the CEO's office to a $7,170 professional development lunch for 600 educators that featured a menu of chicken cacciatore, baked ziti and beef brisket barbecue. Orders were for small-scale staff meetings, large-scale professional development, and parent and community events.

With the money spent over two years, a Baltimore Sun analysis found, the district could have bought a full-priced cafeteria lunch for its poorest students — 66,659 students qualified for free lunch this past school year — for a week.

School officials defended the expenditures, saying the food was served at community and parent engagement events and made workdays more efficient for staff who could work through lunch or dinner.

"This is not food that a bunch of central administrators are eating," said Victor De La Paz, the system's chief financial officer. "This is food to engage people in the work. The activity is constant."

The Sun reviewed more than 1,350 food invoices, obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request, from 35 central administrative offices between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2012.

De La Paz said many offices pay for their meals with grants — the district estimated that $416,319 of the food was paid for with grants — that explicitly allow for the food purchases and thus don't require tapping into operating budgets.

"The grant funds allow us to bring more people together," he said.

Federal auditors questioned the school system earlier this year for its use of grant funds on food and parent engagement activities.

De La Paz said the school system, which has 12,000 employees, is looking to rein in those expenses while also preserving its philosophy that gives autonomy to office heads about how they spend their budgets.

Watchdog groups said the district should be mindful of the public's perception.

"Creative ideas and creative ways of building community and engagement are important. They just have to be gauged against the cost efficiencies, accountability and what the public expects," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

She also said the considerable use of grant funding raises questions about accountability.

"It just shows when you try to move a lot of money into a big, clunky system, the oversight you need to have," she said. "To me, you're at a higher standard because you're taking public funds."

De La Paz pointed out that the district's spending on food declined from $601,112 in fiscal year 2011 to $458,710 in fiscal year 2012. He attributed the decrease to less spending on food for professional development and a decline in grant funds.

Through May of the current fiscal year — which ends Sunday — the district spent $469,785. Officials said that $208,834 of those food orders were paid for with grants.

De La Paz said the system's analysis after The Sun's request — which entailed asking departments to provide supporting documentation for their catered events — shows that the orders were for a total of 68,000 meals over the two-year period, for an average of $15.50 per meal.

However, the purchase orders show that in some cases, the price per person could be more than $30. Examples include a $1,534 meeting for 50 parents at which crab-stuffed mushrooms and salmon marinated in white-wine butter sauce were served, and a $1,298 meal ordered for 35 administrators that featured grilled salmon, saffron rice and beef Wellington.

In the same timeframe, fiscal years 2011 and 2012, Baltimore County charged a total of $303,741 worth of purchase orders to administrative accounts. Officials said the standard fare is sandwiches and pasta salad, though there is some deviation for those with dietary restrictions.

"With more than 18,000 employees on its payroll, BCPS is the largest employer in Baltimore County," Superintendent Dallas Dance said in a statement. "When teams of those professionals meet for extended periods — to discuss system or school business or for professional development, for example — we believe it is our responsibility to occasionally provide a light meal.

"Providing a breakfast or lunch on site during a meeting or workshop also is an efficient use of staff time and maximizes the opportunities for employees to interact with colleagues," he said.

The city school system is in the process of revising guidance for food purchases to comply with federal grant guidelines passed down by the Maryland State Department of Education last week.

When making food purchases, the district primarily uses federal Title I funds, which help supplement efforts in districts with the nation's poorest students, and Title II funds, which are to be used for hiring and training effective principals and teachers.

This year, a federal audit criticized the district's use of federal stimulus money — particularly the community engagement office's use of Title I money — on chicken dinners that ended up costing $99 per person because of poor turnout and other parent activities, such as makeover days and dinner cruises.

The auditors have recommended the school system pay back thousands in federal money it received in 2009 and 2010.

The audit drew outrage from congressional leaders, who urged the system to tighten its stewardship of taxpayer money, after a year when its fiscal management — including a Sun investigation that found administrator misspending on district credit cards — was repeatedly questioned.

De La Paz said that "the guidance on grant funding for food is not that clear."

"I'm toying with the idea of no grants for food," he said. "But because we're asking parents to come out during certain times, like dinnertime, I'm struggling with being draconian on no food."

The new federal guidelines stipulate that food purchases are allowable if they are "reasonable and necessary" to achieve the grant's goals and objectives.

However, the guidelines say such cases should be considered "rare" and "grantees would have to make a compelling case." There is "generally a high burden of proof to show that paying for food and beverages with federal funds is necessary to meet the goals and objectives of the grant," according to the guidelines.

Among the factors to consider when hosting an event with food: "how the meeting or conference will be perceived by the public; for example, will the meeting or conference be perceived as a good use of taxpayer funds?"

De La Paz said the district has recently contracted vendors to help it streamline food purchases and save money.

He said the district will not control what offices can order, as long as they stay within their budgets. He said, however, that as the district looks to provide more guidance to offices about food purchases, a standardized menu could emerge.

"Personal preference is really hard to constrain, but whenever I see people ordering seafood, I'd say, 'I wouldn't do that,' " he said. "But it's an investment we've made in autonomy, and sometimes that manifests itself in ways that make us feel uncomfortable."

The district's academic offices accounted for $750,000 of the expenses — $322,000 of which was grant funds — and ordered catered food several times a week with some of the more lavish menus, records show.

De La Paz said those orders showed primarily that "professional development for our staff has to be of a different variety, more intense, a different level of investment."

He said the orders reflect time demands on academic and school support staff who "burn the midnight oil" during the week and occasionally on weekends.

For example, in February 2011, teams gathered to grade student projects over the weekend, and the district's Office of Teaching and Learning spent $2,341 on crispy chicken salad, crab balls, sweet-and-sour chicken, shrimp, veggie and chicken fried rice, a cookie tray and drinks.

Several catering orders in one day reflect professional development that can last through mealtimes, De La Paz said.

In February 2011, the district's school support network hosted a $320 professional development session that started in the morning with eggs Benedict, scrambled eggs, sausage gravy and biscuits, turkey and regular bacon, fried potatoes and mini-muffins. That same day, the office also ordered $370 of mini-sandwiches, crab cakes, chicken salad, macaroni and shrimp salads, and cookies for lunch.

School officials said that the sessions started at 8:30 a.m. and ended just after 4 p.m. and normally included teams of 10 to 20 people. They said that holding the professional development in-house was cheaper because the meetings could reach up to 60 people at certain times during the day.

"We really don't hold back in how much we have to invest in our staff to get the work done," De La Paz said.

The district's efforts to draw parents and community members also can be expensive endeavors.

The district spent $168,000 on community engagement events over the two years, much of which also was funded through grants, including Title I funds, De La Paz said.

In June 2011, the Parent Community Advisory Board hosted an outreach event for Latino families that featured city schools CEO Andrés Alonso. About 200 people attended the $6,000 event, which was conducted in Spanish and featured paella, Cuban salad, plantains, beans and rice, pupusa, cakes and drinks.

And in November 2011, the district's Partnerships Office paid $3,890 to hold a "community conversation" with the chief academic officer at Tapas Teatro for 145 families. While a similar event earlier in the year had a large turnout, only 60 people attended. The cost per person: $65.

Turnout is difficult to predict, De La Paz said, but the district always wants to be prepared.

"That's the work of turning around an urban school system," he said.

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