Baldwin Park Unified School District, located in the Los Angeles area, was caught misappropriating funds for their free and reduced cost lunch program to pay for banking fees and cleaning supplies. According to California Watch, they must meet with state administrators this week and repay the $1.5 million in federal lunch money in order to avoid severe penalties and a lawsuit. The state education department is withholding the district's federal food money and is threatening to permanently cut their funding if they do not repay the $1.5 million by Oct. 26.
The district serves 20,379 students in 13 elementary schools, four junior high schools and three high schools, the majority of whom are low income. According to the State Department of Education, of the 11,519 students counted in their 2011 Academic Performance Indicator (API), over 10,000 were socioeconomically disadvantaged.
Baldwin Park’s superintendent has denied any wrongdoing, saying that most districts do what he did and has asserted that the repayments are routine. However, this is the second time in five years the district has been caught misappropriating federal lunch funds. In 2006, the district was ordered to repay $1.6 million in food money that was spent on construction work at several school cafeterias. More recently, the district banked some of the federal funds to help build up a $5 million reserve.
It does not appear that officials were pocketing the money or enriching themselves in these scams. It is possible that the scams were a response to dwindling state and local funding and/or incompetent management. Regardless of the cause, ripping off federal school lunch funds for any reason is a pretty pathetic move considering how poorly funded the program is and how much poor families depend on it despite its limitations.