Feb. 5, 2005, 12:04AM


School breakfast program halted

HISD says the government may have been bilked


State investigators have uncovered evidence of inflated meal counts and possible overbilling of the federal government by HISD's food service programs, prompting Superintendent Abe Saavedra on Friday to suspend the Breakfast in the Classroom program.

The inadequate accounting procedures were found in the breakfast and after-school snack programs at several schools during a weeklong January review of the Houston Independent School District's cafeteria operations, according to a written statement issued by Saavedra late Friday afternoon.

"This is a very well-intentioned program that needs stricter controls and better management in each classroom in which it is served," he said.

The announcement marks a major reversal for HISD, which had staunchly defended the breakfast program's accounting procedures less than a month ago.

"We have a lot of good mechanisms for monitoring in place," district Chief Operations Officer Reginald Moore said just days before the Texas Department of Agriculture review began on Jan. 24.

Students will still have access to breakfast in school cafeterias, but schools will not go back to serving breakfast in classrooms unless the campus-shared decision-making committee and Moore agree, Saavedra said.

The Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp. took over HISD's food services operation in 1997 and turned the money-losing endeavor into a profit maker. HISD billed the federal government nearly $69 million in meal reimbursements last school year, compared with less than $46 million in 2000. HISD paid Aramark $4.75 million last year.

Aramark spokeswoman Kate Moran stood by a statement she made before the investigation that the company has done nothing wrong. The company runs cafeterias in about 420 school districts nationally.

Investigators visited six schools with the breakfast program and found that teachers and cafeteria workers were not properly keeping track of the number of meals received and eaten. Forty schools use the program, which serves meals to students at their desks rather than at the cafeteria.

"They were not properly accounting for the number of meals received and eaten," said Beverly Boyd, a Department of Agriculture spokeswoman. Boyd said she was unaware of similar findings at any other Texas school district since the department began conducting the reviews in August 2003. It could be several weeks before a final report is written, she said.

The team of 10 investigators also had "serious concerns" about record-keeping procedures in seven of the eight schools where they reviewed after-school snack programs, according to Saavedra's statement. Snacks were claimed at some of those schools, but not served to students. Saavedra ordered an internal review of the snack program, which will continue to operate.

The Houston Independent School District could be forced to repay the federal government for any meal reimbursements that were improperly charged, Boyd said.

The breakfast program's suspension came as vindication for Orell Fitzsimmons, local field director for the Service Employees International Union. He has been accusing Aramark of overbilling the government for more than a year. Fitzsimmons predicted the investigators would find major problems with the breakfast program before they arrived on Jan. 24.


 Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle


Feb. 5, 2005, 9:37PM



After crafting the Bush education agenda during the president's first term, adviser Spellings inherits the formal title and Cabinet post

With the swearing-in of Margaret Dudar Spellings as the successor to Education Secretary Rod Paige, President George Bush has replaced the salesman for his No Child Left Behind Act with its manufacturer. As with the elevation of Condoleezza Rice to secretary of state, the president is moving a key long-term adviser into a much more visible leadership position.

The national spotlight on Spellings, a 47-year-old Michigan native who moved to Houston when she was a third-grader, will be intense. She graduated from Sharpstown High School and the University of Houston and headed to Austin, working as a lobbyist for a school board association and later as Gov. Bush's education adviser. She is married to Washington attorney and lobbyist Robert Spellings and is the mother of two teenage daughters by a previous marriage.

"I don't like the limelight," Spellings once commented. "I like to be under the radar."

"Well, that's over," Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon laughed. Whereas Paige committed a string of well-publicized gaffes during his tenure as secretary, Fallon, a longtime friend and admirer of Spellings', predicts the new secretary will handle her role smoothly.

Spellings started with a stumble last week by denouncing PBS for spending public money on a cartoon featuring among a cast of characters two lesbian couples. According to the new secretary, many parents would not want their children exposed to such life-styles.

Gay people pay taxes, too, and have the right to be objectively portrayed on a federally funded medium rather than be airbrushed out of existence. Spellings and her department should stay out of the culture wars and resist the sway of partisan ideologues who care more about advancing their agenda than about teaching children how to read, write, calculate and reason.

No Child Left Behind has had no shortage of critics in its first years of implementation. Many Democrats have cited underfunding of the law, contrary to commitments made by Bush. Some Republicans object to federal intrusion into a traditionally state matter. Also, rigid federal testing standards have resulted in funding cuts for some disadvantaged schools.

Spellings defends the law's results: boosted test scores in reading and math in grade schools around the country. Even her opponents credit her as a savvy designer of legislation and a tough, though personable negotiator. She should showcase those qualities by moving quickly to iron out the kinks in No Child Left Behind and use her rapport with President Bush to push for full funding.

Spellings also needs to speedily conclude an internal investigation of a $240,000 payment by the Education Department to a media commentator, Armstrong Williams, to promote No Child Left Behind. Responsibility should be determined for this misuse of taxpayer dollars, an apparent violation of federal law forbidding the use of public funds for propaganda. If the facts merit, charges should be brought against those culpable.

The new secretary brings a wealth of educational and political knowledge to her assignment, as well as a power few in the federal bureaucracy possess: the ear of the president of the United States.

Over the next four years, when lawmakers quiz Spellings on Bush's proposals, they will be addressing their questions to someone intimately familiar with those policies because she played a large role in creating them. That's real accountability.


  Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle


On Second Thought

February 10, 2005

HISD isn't laughing now about a breakfast program

Does anyone know a good whiplash doctor?

They're going to need one at the Houston school district, where soft-tissue injuries are rampant -- especially in the public relations department -- over the Breakfast in the Classroom fiasco.

When the Houston Press first broke the story about how the district and its food contractor, Aramark, were said to be wildly inflating the numbers of free breakfasts served through the program (see "Eating It Up," by Sarah Fenske, November 4), the district could not have pushed back any harder.

"If you listen closely, you can almost hear it: parents all around Houston laughing at the Houston Press," HISD spokesman Terry Abbott wrote in a letter published in the Press. "This article is inaccurate and unfair and, most of all, downright silly."

A few months later, when the state announced it would be investigating the program, the district went out of its way to emphasize the audit was strictly routine, nothing to see here folks, keep moving, show's over.

And then on February 4 -- late in the afternoon on a Friday, the classic time for bureaucracies to disclose bad news -- HISD announced that Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra had indefinitely suspended the Breakfast in the Classroom program.

"This is a very well-intentioned program that needs stricter controls and better management," said Saavedra, who failed to include a decibel count of how loudly Houstonians were laughing.

Auditors visited six of the 40 HISD schools with the program; in five of them they found inaccurate accounting. Meals delivered to the classroom were being counted as eaten even if they were untouched -- which puts federal money in the pockets of the district and Aramark. The company received $4.75 million from HISD last year.

As first reported in the Press, Aramark developed the classroom-breakfast plan because kids eligible for free breakfasts wouldn't go to the cafeteria to eat them, and that didn't help Aramark sell food. So instead they load up coolers with juice and breakfast food and deliver them to the classroom -- where they still go uneaten.

Orell Fitzsimmons, field director for Service Employees International Union Local 100, also had come in for district criticism when he complained about the program.

He says he's pleased with the decision of the newly installed Saavedra, which mirrored an earlier tough call on test scores. "What I think we're seeing here is the superintendent, if he defends a problem then he owns it," Fitzsimmons says. "But if he investigates it and fixes it, it's not seen as his problem."

Copyright 2005 Houston Press