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On March 22, we printed a story regarding an audit that had been conducted on the Ridgway Schools Food Service program. The audit found the district was not in compliance with a regulation requiring documentation of the tracking of temperatures, quantity and weights of ingredients throughout each day of the year.
The Plaindealer reported that the fine for this infraction, according to Ridgway Schools Superintendent Cheryl Gomez, was nearly $12,000. The Plaindealer also reported that audit findings resulted in the state withholding the reimbursement of funds for free and reduced lunches, over $7,000. Together, we reported, the total fines were in the $18,000 range.
These penalties were reported as heard at the monthly school board meeting the night of March 15. We also reported that the district planned to appeal a portion of these fines.
On March 22, after the ink had barely dried on our pages and the paper was in our subscribers’ mailboxes all over the county, Gomez sent an email via her staff to the “entire Staff of Ridgway Schools, Ridgway Board of Education and My Community Blast network.” In it, she said our reporting of the figures was “exaggerated” and not accurate.
She was correct on the latter. According to Jane Brand, Principal Consultant at the Office of School Nutrition with the Colorado Department of Education, the total penalty assessed was $11,858.22. Within that figure was the roughly $7,000 we reported. The two figures were not supposed to be added.
Had Gomez simply elected to notify us of this mistake, we would have gladly printed a correction in the next issue. She chose instead to label our reporting as “exaggeration.”
That term would lead everyone on her email list to believe we purposely, for the sake of misleading our readers, bent and twisted the numbers for some unknown benefit.
She also told those on her email list that the article was “a bit of a reach and an opportunity to feed negative energy.” We’re not sure where that came from.
According to Brand, it was a clear-cut penalty that was assessed under the Federal Child Nutrition Program. Districts are required to record the quantity and components of meals served to schoolchildren. This is a federal requirement to ensure USDA requirements for nutrition. Brand said there was really nothing subjective about the penalty. The documentation is required by the Feds. It wasn’t there. A penalty was assessed.
And we reported on it as stated in the board meeting and believed the taxpayers of this district would want to know.
The correct calculation, it turns out, was not as stated at the meeting. But we wonder why Gomez went to such sudden length to obfuscate the issue when she could have just supplied us the correct figures.
In fact, in her efforts to characterize us as misleading, she did not offer any “correct” figures to those on her email list. Anywhere. So, what was more important to Gomez? Sending an attack email, or providing correct information to the district? We suspect not the latter, because we were just provided the correct figures this week.
We, of course, immediately upon reading Gomez’ charges in her email, filed an open record request to listen to the tape of that March 15 meeting so we could make a correction, if indeed one was warranted. Unfortunately, the tape recording of that session began just as the last sentences of the Food Service program discussion were being uttered.
In another open record request for the Feb. 22 board meeting, there was not a tape available at all of those proceedings.
Is this systemic? Is it standard operating procedure to have holes along the path of information?
All this seems to tie into our inability to obtain open records in a timely manner in accordance with the law (see story, page 1). In one instance, we have asked for all emails among school board members related to board business. Fulfillment of that request is now a week outside of the parameters of what the law considers reasonable. We could understand if some had been delivered with the promise of more to come. But none have been delivered. With today’s email programs, sorting and pinpointing is easy.
All this also dovetails with our inability to obtain the same documents and information provided to school board members for discussion at open meetings, in accordance with law.
It is connected to our belief that proper noticing of public meetings is not being followed, as required by law.
In all, we do not believe any of this comes from ignorance. We do not believe any of this comes from carelessness. We believe it comes from not expecting anyone to look.
When someone does look, just sending out an attack email or ignoring requests may not make them go away.
The district needs to begin behaving as if voters and taxpayers are counting on them to carry out the law and communicate in a straightforward, honest fashion.
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