Unmistakable signs of trouble existed in Santa Ana Unified School District’s food-service program long before they were cited.

According to the state Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes, district officials had been warned – in writing and in person. The warnings were simply ignored, and had been for years.

Now, SAUSD has been ordered to repay the state $2.7 million that it illegally debited from its student meal program.

Santa Ana is California’s sixth-largest school district and Orange County’s largest. More than 80 percent of its students qualify for federal meal subsidies. The money is intended to pay for food and salaries of food-service workers and custodians. Santa Ana received $24.9 million in the 2010-11. State subsidies accounted for another $2.1 million.

But rather than vigilant oversight of these funds, both elected and hired adults in charge seemed content to ignore the rules.

It took a whistle-blower to stop the abuse. Jan Monforte, a former SAUSD food services director who reported the district’s conduct to state officials, told the Register that her department was treated like a “cash cow.” Funds were routinely siphoned for other uses, including a $300,000 roof replacement project.

The children were fed, but they were fed cheaper, unhealthier processed foods rather than healthier fresh foods. Thus, the district diverted the savings to other uses – including feeding elected school board members and district officials at meetings.

Two years earlier, the previous food-service director was terminated for allowing what an arbitrator called “a hostile work environment” to exist in the district’s central kitchen. Sexual horseplay seemed to be a regular occurrence.

Ah, the mice played while the cat was away. But there were also plenty of real mice. County health inspectors cited the district 22 times in a four-year period for cockroaches and rodents at 15 campuses and the central kitchen. Old-fashioned mouse traps were openly displayed in the kitchen, leading Monforte to testify “when you get to the point where you have to do that, things have gone out of control.”

Not surprisingly, Santa Ana officials have contested the report’s accuracy and repaying at least $2.4 million. Even as they have made adjustments based on the state’s findings, they defend their actions citing an “absence of guidance” from the state on accounting methods and differences of “interpretation.”

Really? What part of “the district would have never received the money if it were not intended to feed poor children” do they not understand? Even if they failed to understand the legal issues, they should have understood the moral ones.

Santa Ana was not the only cited district. The report documented eight districts illegally debiting a combined $170 million from their student meal programs.

Kudos to the state Senate for investigating and making the report public. It underscores the Legislature’s less-understood, but critical, role of oversight, not just lawmaking. Important policy implications raised by the report warrant further legislative attention: state inspections of district food facilities are prearranged and collaborative with the district; the most serious offenses have been triggered by whistle-blowers. And officials only sporadically review financial records. These things need to change.

Finally, no school official in California has ever been prosecuted for intentionally diverting meal funds. Time to end that.

Gloria Romero is an education reformer and former Democratic state senator from Los Angeles. This post originally appeared as a guest editorial in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.

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