Something Rotten

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

But in the early Nineties, Gilliard's smooth-driving career hit a really big pothole: the teacher's union. Over the course of about three years beginning in the late Eighties, several teachers filed grievances against her for perceived abuses of power, including intimidation. Evaluations in Gilliard's personnel file at the time indicate her superiors were concerned about her use of school funds and personnel management. In 1991 the union filed an unfair-labor-practice charge against her and used its influence to get her ousted from the school. She was moved up into the bureaucracy, to a position as region director of exceptional student education and federal programs. There she stayed until 1997, when she was promoted to assistant superintendent of school operations, under Pearson. The position included oversight of food services.

In 1999 a controversy hit the department when cafeteria workers found out from a widely circulated e-mail that the district was considering privatizing food service and raised holy hell. Pearson quickly shut down that process. The food and nutrition department was then moved under the auspices of Carol Cortes in management and accountability. Gilliard's day-to-day oversight of the department began last fall, after Bowersox resigned. It's a big job. The department's 3000 employees serve more than 48 million meals per year under less-than-ideal conditions. Cafeterias, like most schools, are overcrowded, and many principals have allocated just one half-hour, maybe two, in which to feed hundreds or thousands. For years at the high school level, the lunchroom also has suffered heavy losses to outside vendors, universally dubbed "roach coaches," that cut lucrative deals with principals to sell food on campuses. Gilliard is working to change this.

A consultant's report presented to Gilliard last year notes that the participation rates among students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches in Miami-Dade's high schools "are among the lowest ever observed." The abuelas in the kitchens all have their stories about slipping the occasional meal to a student too embarrassed by the stigma of being labeled poor to fill out the paperwork for a free lunch. They'd rather grab a bag of chips and a soda from a machine. "We have kids in need, and that's why we want to make sure they eat," emphasizes one manager. "A lot of kids depend on that for their main meal." The same consultant's report estimates that the Department of Food and Nutrition could more than double its budget -- to almost $300 million -- simply by getting a majority of students to eat regularly.

Observers like parent Susan Kairalla see a lot of potential there. If done right, there could be lots of money flowing into the school district, lots of full stomachs, and a world-class program envied by other large districts. But when she looks back at some of the major blunders already made under Gilliard's management, Kairalla wonders whether such a large undertaking will be successful. "What this experience tells me is we are too big and we are not minding the store," she admonishes. Cortes, Gilliard's boss, doesn't agree. She says Gilliard is an energetic, innovative administrator who can learn from the mistakes that have been made. "I think it's going in the right direction," she intones. "It's not there yet." What about the $5000 talking parrot, the flagrant disregard of Cortes's orders, the consulting contract plagued by problems? What about the moldy cheese? "Am I 100 percent sure it won't happen again? God, I hope not under my watch."

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