Something Rotten

Miami-Dade County Public Schools has wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds it receives each year to feed its 365,000 mostly poor students. Gross mismanagement and cronyism have rotted the core of what once was an award-winning program -- resulting in wasted food and an exodus of experienced managers disgusted with a job they used to love. Now top executives in the schools' Department of Food and Nutrition are poised to squander millions more dollars on a host of well-intentioned but expensive projects that lack the preparation and coordination required for success.

How bad can it be? More than a million dollars' worth of free government cheese, whole-wheat flour, lunch meat, and other commodities shipped by the USDA to the school system never reached the stomachs of hungry children. Instead, through a pattern of mismanagement that extends back several years, literally tons of food was allowed to pile up in warehouses until it rotted, molded, or putrefied. Trainloads of ruined food were sent to landfills, and truckloads of overstocked food were pawned off on charities and prisons. Rather than being fired, the principal architect of the mess was given a hefty raise.

This year thousands of children learned to despise school lunches anew, because managers at the schools couldn't get the food they ordered to make the meals they knew their students would eat. "Thirty-five years I've been in the system, and this past year was the worst one ever," says Berta Rivero, a food-service manager at Redland Middle who retired in June. Records and the stories of other managers like Rivero show that superiors dumped masses of overstocked commodities on the schools to cover up extensive mistakes in the food-distribution system that already had resulted in hefty federal fines. "We are forced to use these things," complains a high school food manager who asked to remain anonymous. "You can't keep shoving the same food on the kids. They can blame the government all they want, but we know it's not true."

Thus far the department's annual budget of $122 million (almost 70 percent of which comes from the federal government) is large enough that it has been able to absorb costly mistakes. And district officials haven't traditionally paid a lot of attention to a program they tend to see as "a bunch of short little fat ladies running around in tennis shoes," in the words of one former employee. But with the school district's evolving plan to keep all 88,000 high school students on campus for lunch, this is likely to change. That plan is modestly projected to run some $18 million just in renovation costs. Add in money for additional security monitors, custodians, and other extras, and that amount could easily double.

As overseen by assistant superintendent Onetha J. Gilliard, the department runs the risk of becoming an easy target for proponents of privatizing the business side of education. Huge management companies like Sodexho-Marriott, Aramark, and Chartwells know a wounded animal when they smell one. For years Sodexho-Marriott in particular has been quietly lobbying the right people in an attempt to convince the district to privatize its mammoth food-service program, which Gilliard brags is rivaled in South Florida only by the cruise-ship industry. School officials at the highest levels, including Superintendent Roger Cuevas, emphatically deny that privatization is even a consideration. Yet it was a consulting company affiliated with Sodexho-Marriott that wrote the request for proposal the school district sent out to the business community this past April asking for help managing its lunch program in 35 high schools.

Inexplicably at the same time that the school district was soliciting proposals to redesign its entire high school food program, Gilliard was happily lavishing money on pet projects of questionable value. She spent $263,000 to give the cafeteria at Edison High School a sort of "pirates of the Caribbean" theme without ever putting the project out to bid. In May Gilliard suddenly canceled the request for proposal, saying that none of the handful of bidding companies had satisfied her and that she had decided she didn't need the consulting help anyway. It was an explanation that flabbergasted then-school board member Jacqueline Pepper, who called the move an "unprofessional" and "irresponsible" way to deal with the business community. Critics charge that Gilliard is afraid to let an outside company see what goes on inside the department -- and with good reason.

How could this have happened? The system of checks and balances that is supposed to keep the engine running smoothly and the egos of executives with access to public dollars under control has been short-circuited by cronyism, neglect, and ignorance. The direct results are wasted public money and thousands of students who are not eating the nutritious meals they need to get those high standardized test scores the school district values above all else.

Polly Talks

"I was hoping to have the parrot working while you were here," offers an apologetic assistant principal. "But I think I broke the bird trying to get it to talk." Connie Martinez points to the blue-and-yellow feathered thing perched silently in its cage over the partial hull of a pirate ship rising incongruously from the center of the Edison High cafeteria floor. "It's really great," she adds. "The students are so complimentary."

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.

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.

As with many of the projects Gilliard has jumped into in the past year, the ideas behind the Edison High makeover are good. The enthusiastic assistant super has launched half a dozen major projects aimed at changing the meat loaf-and-hairnet image of the food-service program. She's started a universal feeding program at two dozen elementary and middle schools, introduced milk vending machines, and initiated an à la carte program using fast-food vendors designed to appeal to finicky teenagers at the high schools.

That's part of the problem: It may be too much to do all at once for a department with little experience in innovation. Some of the programs, such as the universal feeding program, could end up costing the department's budget a substantial amount if not well planned in advance. But Gilliard is not hearing that from eager-to-please underlings. "It's all part of the change in school food service," chirps Tom Holmberg, a beefy, red-faced man whose dress sense and manner suggest the corporate restaurant manager he once was. He pauses to make sure Gilliard is listening to him. "And thank God we have a boss who supports us."

101 Delights of Turkey Pastrami

At her office in Tallahassee last spring, state bureau of food distribution chief Gloria VanTreese reviewed with some amazement an audit written by her staff on the Miami-Dade County USDA commodity food program. From mid-1998 to May 2000, the sheer amount of food that either was thrown away or was so old it might soon have to be was staggering. During that period the school district reported losses of $406,642. Literally tons of moldy mozzarella was deemed unfit for human consumption, and the district was forced to repay $263,000 to the USDA. State inspections of schools and warehouses turned up another $735,666 worth of commodities that the audit mildly notes, "may have passed the end of their useful shelf life." (The school district used or sent to other organizations most of this aged food and did not have to pay fines on it.) The cause of all this waste is clear: an egregious stockpiling of food.

Unfortunately for the Department of Food and Nutrition, the state was starting to get tough on school districts with major violations of the rules governing the school lunch program. "To me, that's a large dollar amount," VanTreese allows. "It seems like an awful lot. I don't like to see things wasted, because this is good food, and we have a lot of needy people who could benefit from it." The crackdown should not have surprised the school district. After the last state audit in 1996, the department's then-executive director Madeline Bowersox had issued a series of memos reminding managers at the schools to write the manufacturing dates on every food item and to use the oldest items first. One memo stated that in the 1996 audit, "numerous items were found to have pack dates from 1990-1994." But the real problem was not in the school kitchens. It was back at the central office, where the food was being ordered and then shipped out to schools.

A New Times examination of a sampling of the records of commodities received and distributed from the warehouses in the past five years reveals a clear pattern of stockpiling. Truckloads of items such as whole-wheat flour, turkey pastrami, mozzarella cheese, and apple-cinnamon snacks among other victuals kept coming in to the warehouses but only trickling out to the schools. At times some of this food would be sent to programs such as South Florida Food Recovery or the Daily Bread Food Bank. The department claims it has little control over the amounts of commodities the USDA chooses to send and that some of the food just wasn't popular with the schools. "Once the decision has been made by your district, you're usually locked in," says planning and production district coordinator Sandra Shannon.

VanTreese disputes the explanation that it's the federal government's fault tons of free food rotted away. Each school district submits a grocery list every year telling the state what kind and how much of the available commodities it will need the following year. "Should they decide in the meantime to say, “Oops, we don't want it or need it,' they can refuse up to twenty percent," she clarifies. "It wasn't like we loaded them because we had no place to send it. Pretty much what you order is what you're going to receive." And the school district, in the person of Shannon, kept ordering more every year.

The May 2000 audit and federal fines produced immediate consequences in the food and nutrition department. The school district's audit department issued its own caustic report that summer echoing the state's findings and further estimating that it cost $74,000 just to keep some of the food sitting in storage for more than two years. That audit didn't mention another hidden cost. While it may be mostly "free" money from the federal government that was wasted, when the school district doesn't find clever, efficient ways to make the most of gratis commodities, it must buy the food to feed its children from vendors, millions of dollars' worth every year. After the audits the entire management structure of the department was reorganized at the behest of Gilliard and her bosses. Shannon's boss, Madeline Bowersox, was demoted and subsequently retired, while Shannon got a pay raise and more authority. Checks and balances, which insiders say are mostly just rehashes of old procedures already in place, were implemented to prevent such an embarrassing situation from happening again.

But the situation should not have happened in the first place. When asked how it did, Gilliard responds protectively: "The person responsible for answering the [audit] would have been Madeline Bowersox, and she retired in September. So Sandra for the most part could not answer that." This is true. It also is true that Shannon is and has been for years the person responsible for ordering and distributing the food, and she controls menu planning, a position that should have made her the first person to realize there was a problem. The worsening condition of the inventory became apparent to Bowersox after the 1996 audit, so she hired a finance coordinator to watch Shannon's work. According to several sources within the department, both tried to confront Shannon at various times in the last couple of years, but little changed.

Bowersox is described by many as a competent administrator who was popular with managers at the schools but not well equipped to handle confrontation. Shannon is considered an assertive woman who has Gilliard's ear. "Madeline was afraid of [Shannon]," one food manager sighs. Shannon declines to comment on the overstocking debacle of the past years but echoes Gilliard's opinion. "The person who was responsible for making sure audits were responded to is no longer with the department." When contacted, Bowersox declined to comment on the record.

But getting rid of Bowersox did not end the department's troubles. The problem Shannon had created was conveniently transferred to the school kitchens. It was the beginning of the 2000-01 school year, and the department officials knew they had to do something with all that stockpiled food. Over the next several months, it was dumped into the schools. "Some of the schools were serving turkey pastrami for weeks," one coordinator remembers. "I don't know how they did it." Managers at the schools banded together to help one another out as much as they could by trading food. "You should see the e-mails," suggests a manager at a school in North Miami-Dade. "They're like, “I have 240 cases of grits to get rid of,' or “I've got 28 cases of tomato sauce to get rid of.'"

Back at the central office, directors sent out memos suggesting innovative, sometimes unlikely, uses of comestibles managers just couldn't get students to eat. One e-mail message told managers to try adding brown sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and a pie crust to tomato preserves and offer it as a free dessert. Yum. Another, sent out May 31, urged managers to find as many ways as possible to use more shortening in recipes. "Because school site inventories of USDA items cannot exceed six months, every effort must be made to use USDA shortening prior to the close of this school year," the e-mail states. Mandates like those destroy the ability of managers to respond to the wants of the students and discourage students from entering the cafeterias. They also undermine the goal of all the new programs Gilliard has started: to get thousands of poor children eating nutritious meals.

By the end of the year, much of the overstocked food had been used up. And so had the managers, some of whom decided to retire early rather than go through one more year like this one. Berta Rivero, a food manager at Redland Middle for nineteen years, is not alone in thinking that the schools were used as dumping grounds for someone else's mistakes. "It was unfair to schools, because when the schools are audited, they are the ones who look bad," she remarks. "We have a good program. When you have a good program, why are you ordering stuff that we cannot use?"

Carol Cortes, who recalls being "extremely upset over the cheese debacle," repeats the explanation her assistant superintendent has given her: This bungle occurred because the department doesn't have a computer program sophisticated enough to help it count the food that comes in and the food that goes out of warehouses to schools every day. "We are a huge operation that is behind the time technology-wise," she ventures. "Our inventory [system] was basically horse and buggy ... pen and pencil. Then things slipped."

Eat Right, Get Funded Regularly

Onetha Gilliard is a petite, attractive woman of 53 who dresses impeccably, smiles radiantly, and speaks in exclamation points. "Fan-tas-tic!" But there is a flip side to her personality, an insecurity that requires constant feeding. Gilliard likes to feel powerful, competent, and respected -- and she honors the school system tradition of rewarding the loyal over the competent. The subordinates closest to her have learned to tell her only what she wants to hear.

Born and raised in South Carolina, Gilliard arrived with her husband, Clarence, in deep South Dade County just a couple of years after desegregation. She was hired in 1970 as a teacher at South Dade Senior High, became an assistant principal in 1979, and a principal at Campbell Drive Middle in 1984. Gilliard was considered a leader in Homestead's black community, and it is where she formed a close relationship with Eddie Pearson, now the powerful deputy superintendent of school operations. Her husband later became an assistant principal under Pearson's wife, Lula, at the COPE Center South.

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."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >