Something Rotten

Trainloads of food go to waste while thousands of kids go unfed, courtesy of the school lunch program

The bird's glassy eye looks out across a sea of students from Little Haiti, Liberty City, and Miami Shores undulating through an indoor tropical paradise dreamed up by a furniture company. Neat rows of brightly colored tables and fiberglass booths are interspersed with columns painted to resemble palm trees, plastic potted plants, and wall-size murals of generic Caribbean landscapes and grimacing pirates. Sophomore Wendy Prophete walks past the $11,000 ship, with its TV in the crow's nest and the $5000 mechanical bird. He scoots into a booth with three friends and a tray of square pizza. He regards the overall effect of the makeover that, in one long Memorial Day weekend, transformed his drab, institutional cafeteria into something like a cross between Disney World and McDonald's. "I like the style." he appraises. "I like it."

Pretty much the entire school likes the new look, especially principal Santiago Corrada, who now has a showpiece that didn't cost his school budget a penny. It did cost the food and nutrition department more than $263,000 to redecorate and add 75 more seats (about $3500 per behind). Tom Holmberg, the department's facilities planning coordinator, claims the money will be made back once more students start eating in the cafeteria. "The company guaranteed that we would recoup costs in one year to eighteen months," he bubbles brightly. Holmberg backs off slightly when asked how they guaranteed that. "Well, they said we would," he demurs, just before admitting that the department hadn't actually run the numbers itself to determine if this would be the case. "Well, we did it informally," he finishes lamely.

It's a reasonable question to ask, since most of the high school cafeterias operate at a loss, according to a December 2000 consultant's report on Miami-Dade's school-food program. At Edison more than half of the 2340 students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch courtesy of the federal government, but on a given day only eleven percent take advantage of the offer. In the three weeks between the makeover and the end of the school year, dazzled students and teachers piled into the cafeteria in record numbers. For an inner-city school accustomed to never being first in line, this was like a gift from above.

Deputy superintendent Carol Cortes isn't happy about the talking parrot or the moldy cheese, but she supports Gilliard
Steve Satterwhite
Deputy superintendent Carol Cortes isn't happy about the talking parrot or the moldy cheese, but she supports Gilliard
Parent activist Susan Kairalla wants a nutritious meal in every child's tummy and a healthy bottom line in the school district's food budget
Jennie Zeiner
Parent activist Susan Kairalla wants a nutritious meal in every child's tummy and a healthy bottom line in the school district's food budget

But lunchtime fundamentals really haven't changed. Students with 30 minutes to eat are still bottlenecked in serving lines that move like molasses, and the food -- the stuff that utterly failed to entice most of them before -- is the same. What will happen when the new cafeteria smell wears off? The answer is critical, because when school opens next week, hundreds of students who used to be able to wander down the street to fast-food restaurants will be locked on campus in an effort to keep them safe.

Was $263,000 the best price the school district could get for what amounts to new furniture, paintings, and some potted plants? The taxpayer may never know, because Onetha Gilliard awarded the entire job to one company without ever putting the project out to bid. Her excuse? The school district already had a contract with Universal Seating, among other companies, to provide furniture to schools as needed. If a school wants a few tables and chairs, an official can basically order them from a catalogue. That, essentially, is what Gilliard did, ordering piece by piece until the total amount added up to a major project with custom-designed features. And she did it even after her boss publicly said the project wasn't going to happen.

The makeover at Edison High originally was supposed to have been completed during spring break last April. Then Susan Kairalla, a parent volunteer at Killian High who had been following the department's plans to redesign its lunch program at all 35 high schools, began asking questions about the deal. Her questions came to the attention of Gilliard's boss, management and accountability deputy superintendent Carol Cortes, who was appropriately horrified about the way Gilliard had gotten around the rules and stopped the project. At a mid-April meeting held in school board member Marta Perez's office, Cortes explained that she hadn't been aware of the scope of the project. "Those things happen," she shrugged. "I'm approving a requisition for a school. I don't see every detail."

Kairalla then asked Cortes two key questions: Why would the school district spend more than a quarter of a million dollars to ornament one cafeteria when it was about to issue a request for proposal for consultants to help overhaul its entire program? And how would she prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future? Cortes interrupted this line of questioning testily. "It's not happening," she snapped, referring to the Edison deal.

"But it almost did," pointed out Perez.

And then it did happen. When students returned from Memorial Day weekend, the Red Raider Café was up and running. Cortes says she was surprised when she found out that Gilliard had given the contractor the go-ahead. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you I'm not disappointed," Cortes concedes. "Frankly the talking parrot bothered me. Did people get carried away? Probably. We probably could have done something nice for a lot less." But in Gilliard's view, the kids and the taxpayers got a good deal. "I can assure you, we went through everything with a fine-tooth comb," Gilliard promises. "It took us long enough to put it together." She is so confident in her strategy that she had planned to conduct similar makeovers at ten other high schools over the summer. That would have amounted to a de facto $2.6-million no-bid contract and still solved only part of the problem. Cortes says that absolutely won't happen. She believes in cafeteria makeovers but is firm in insisting that any future projects will be bid out.

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