SALT LAKE CITY — A lunch worker did not follow policy when taking away meals from students at a local elementary school in late January, an independent review released Thursday concluded.
Some parties disagree, saying the lunch worker should not shoulder blame for administrative errors and inconsistencies between policy and practice.
"The responsibilities that are in (the report) weren't being followed by the principal, and so I believe that's more of a contributing factor to what happened, and putting this blame on the frontline worker, I believe, is just unfair," said Michael Clara, Salt Lake City School Board member over District 2.
Clara has recommended the school board vote on whether to accept the report at its next meeting Oct. 2.
On Jan. 28, lunches were taken away from 17 students at Uintah Elementary School and thrown in the garbage. Following the incident, the Salt Lake City School District Board of Education had two external agencies conduct investigations into the district's lunch policies and procedures.
The school was one of seven investigated that had more than 100 instances of fruit and milk being offered in lieu of a meal. Uintah, with 1,138 instances, was well above other schools.
"(The nutrition manager) stated that she had complied with the provisions of November 2013 'What’s Cooking' letter by giving all appropriate notices to parents when, in fact, she had not," the report said.
"What's Cooking" was a districtwide letter sent in November 2013 about district school lunch deficit policy. It said lunches should be taken away "only after a number of prior interventions have been attempted," the report said.
Kelly Orton, the district's nutrition director, and Uintah Elementary Principal Chelsea Malouf both incorrectly indicated they had policies directing workers never to throw away lunches, according to the report.
Nutrition manager Shirley Canham told interviewers she never received the "What's Cooking" newsletter, though email records indicate otherwise, the report said.
Nutrition managers often showed that a student received fruit and milk, and instead allowed the student to keep their full lunch, according to the report.
A few factors contributed to the events at Uintah Elementary on Jan. 28, the report concluded. These included a new payment system where parents opt in to receive low-balance notices; the failure of the district to notify parents of this change; and a limiting of nutrition managers' options when a student had a deficit.
While these contributed, they were minor compared with other events, the report said. In January, Canham told the district field supervisor that she had notified parents of delinquent balances and that individual deficits would be decreased to $5, the report said.
"In fact, she was behind and had not contacted parents, had not sent notes home with them, had not telephoned parents regarding deficits in their student’s account and knew that she was behind regarding these matters," the report said.
The report showed Canham also "admitted that at times she would take funds when paid by one student and apply them to the lunch account deficit of another student or students."
Canham said she did not take any funds for her own benefit. A separate audit confirms this information. Interviewers said Canham misapplied funds to cover up for her failure to contact parents.
"It is very likely that if Ms. Canham had been truthful, the events would have been avoided," the report said.
The report advised each elementary school in the district to create a school lunch fund, with meals paid by the fund and billed to parents whose children received the meals. Payments would be enforced through collection letters if necessary.
It suggested the Salt Lake City Board of Education get permission to adopt a "two-person review," where one person checks a student's account balance before they get their food and another stands at the end of the line to ensure their lunch meets federal guidelines.
Finally, it recommended "a full accounting" of Meadowlark, Wasatch and Uintah elementary schools' lunch accounts and use of funds because they "stood out with respect to the number of fruit and milk options indicated and the inconsistency of practices based upon our review of records provided to us and statements made to us in interviews."
Ashley Hoopes, a Uintah parent, said she understands that Canham made mistakes but believes Orton should face consequences as well.
Hoopes said the report shows that Orton falsely indicated he had a policy to not dump lunches, and he said the district notified parents of elementary students about the new payment system when it had not.
"So why is Shirley's lie in order to save her job worth being fired over but this lie is not being disciplined over?" she said in an email.
When asked whether Orton was disciplined, district communications officer Jason Olsen said the district does not discuss "issues of personnel and discipline" other than "to give current employment status."
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