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Update Regarding Asheville City's School Nutrition Department

Good Afternoon Students, Staff and Families.  This is Dr. Gene Freeman, Superintendent of Asheville City Schools, with an update about our School Nutrition Department. 

In early March 2021, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s (NCDPI) Child Nutrition Division conducted an Administrative Review of school food service operations in Asheville City Schools.  Specifically, NCDPI reviewed regulatory compliance at the “Positive Opportunities Develop Success” sites, known as PODS.  The Review was received on June 7, 2021, and culminated in several commendations for our School Nutrition Department, recommendations for improvement, and corrective actions resulting from errors in the school district’s Meal Counting and Meal Claiming process.

Throughout the Fall of 2020, meals were provided to Asheville City Schools students participating in remote learning at PODS locations throughout Asheville. The PODS effort was started by the Asheville Housing Authority who convened a group of ACS alumni, community members, and organizations such as My Daddy Taught Me That, CHOSEN, Youth Transformed for Life, Delta House, My Community Matters and the Housing Authority Residents Council. PODS were a direct response to the pandemic and how it was affecting some of our most underserved students, their families, and their communities.  Asheville City Schools staff members pushed into PODS to support and facilitate student engagement at the community level. 

During the Fall of 2020 and the Spring of 2021, meals for all students were provided for free due to the pandemic.  For example, any parent or guardian could come to school pick-up lines and simply request as many meals as needed to feed their children.  However, for programs such as PODS, a specific meal count was required and some PODS did not accurately account for student and adult meals served during this time period.  As stated by the Review:  “The unintended consequences of authorizing other partnering organizations to provide meals to students/children during the pandemic, created a revenue loss for the school nutrition program, and subsequently for the district.”

The NCDPI Review found that the district’s School Nutrition staff were not to blame for the errors and I want to publicly thank our child nutrition workers and the volunteers who worked diligently to feed students in the PODS over the past year.  Personally, I firmly believe the PODS Program was instrumental in supporting students who needed additional instructional advocacy, which is why I made my own financial contribution of $2,500 through the Asheville City Schools Foundation’s website for PODS in Fall 2020.  However, as Superintendent of Asheville City Schools, I also take full responsibility for the errors noted by NCDPI. During this period federal Child Nutrition guidance and state guidance on related issues fluctuated and the district was working hard to meet the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic at all levels.  While this was a challenging time, that fact does not excuse the errors. 

Finally, the School Board reviewed this matter and did determine that there were no legal conflicts of interest, and no one profited from these errors.  All funds for meals that were not correctly counted have been returned to the State. 

Although the school district no longer feeds children in PODS, the Asheville City Schools' Administration and the Board of Education are committed to working with NCDPI to implement its program recommendations for our School Nutrition program and begin the 2021-22 school year in full compliance with all requirements.  We have been consulting with NCDPI on all necessary steps and our Corrective Action Plan will be submitted to NCDPI for its final approval by August 6th. 

 

NCDPI's Letter to the Superintendent referencing the Administrative Review of the Summer Food Service Program

NCDPI's Review of the Summer Food Service Program


Recent Inquiries from the Media Concerning ACS’s School Nutrition Department

Per Dr. Freeman:

I have one additional question. Please see the below allegation from Pepi Acebo, president of the Montford North Star Academy Parent-Teacher Organization.

"Acebo alleged that multiple sources told him Freeman had ordered Shane Cassida, the district’s assistant superintendent for auxiliary services, to fire Treece over reporting the administration’s interference outlined by the NCDPI.

“Dr. Cassida refused, filing his own whistleblower complaint with the school system's attorney, Chris Campbell,” Acebo continues. “The superintendent retaliated by giving Ms. Treece a co-supervisor so that the superintendent could direct the new co-supervisor to fire her. This led to Ms. Treece resigning with a generous five week’s notice just as the school system was reopening.”

Does the superintendent confirm or deny this allegation?

I do not answer questions based on hearsay.  However, as previously shared, Ms. Treece was overseeing a department that lost a million dollars over five years and continued to lose money under her tenure.

Did Superintendent Freeman prohibit School Nutrition Director Katie Treece from fulfilling state compliance requirements? If not, what specific staff member or members did so?  

No.  I have no idea because Katie Treece was the only Asheville City Schools staff member that I'm aware of who was interviewed by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.  

What was the rationale behind prohibiting Treece from fulfilling those requirements?  

I have no idea why they were no fulfilled other than the fact that I instructed staff to ensure our students received meals as we were in the midst of a pandemic.  Over the past five years, slightly more than a million dollars from other funds have been transferred to the School Nutrition Department because their expense exceeded their revenues.  This can be verified by reviewing our Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports

Did any members of Central Office staff raise concerns over this prohibition? If so, who, and what was Superintendent Freeman's response?  

No one raised concerns to me until I started holding them more accountable this Spring. 

Per Melissa Hedt: 

To be clear, are you saying distributing more meals than allotted by the summer meals program was intentional?

No, I am not saying it was intentional.

Did the workers distributing the meals know they were giving out more than allotted in order to ensure children had food during the pandemic?

I can't speak to that, I do not work directly with child nutrition in my position.

Were they instructed to do this? If so, by whom? The review states the school nutrition director was prohibited from “implementing, completing, and/or fulfilling various compliance requirements in the non-school programs to include the required training of non-school staff, required onsite monitoring requirements in non-school sites and clear oversight for the accuracy of reimbursable meal counts served to eligible students and children.” So if the director was prohibited from doing so, who was supervising the people distributing the meals and permitting them to give more than the federal program allowed?

I can't speak to that, I do not work directly with child nutrition in my position.

Could ACS have looked to other funding or food services to provide additional meals for families, so the district wouldn’t have had to give out more than the federally-allotted meals?

Yes, several agencies also provided snacks and meals in addition to what was provided by ACS.  The intention of all of these efforts was to ensure families and children, especially low-income families and children, were able to eat during the pandemic. We are deeply appreciative of all the individuals and organizations who stepped up to support our students and families, ensuring they had access to food, during this difficult year.

Per Ashley-Michelle Thublin: 

To be clear, are you saying distributing more meals than allotted by the summer meals program was intentional?

Again, that is not what Melissa Hedt said.  As shared in Dr. Freeman’s letter to staff and families, “During this period federal Child Nutrition guidance and state guidance on related issues fluctuated and the district was working hard to meet the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic at all levels.  While this was a challenging time, that fact does not excuse the errors.”  Dr. Freeman’s stance was that no child should go hungry.  

Did the workers distributing the meals know they were giving out more than allotted in order to ensure children had food during the pandemic?

As shared in Dr. Freeman’s letter to staff and families, “the district’s School Nutrition staff were not to blame for the errors.”  Dr. Freeman’s stance was that no child should go hungry.  

Were they instructed to do this? If so, by whom? The review states the school nutrition director was prohibited from “implementing, completing, and/or fulfilling various compliance requirements in the non-school programs to include the required training of non-school staff, required onsite monitoring requirements in non-school sites and clear oversight for the accuracy of reimbursable meal counts served to eligible students and children.” So if the director was prohibited from doing so, who was supervising the people distributing the meals and permitting them to give more than the federal program allowed?

Dr. Freeman instructed staff to ensure our students received meals, as we were in the midst of a pandemic.

Could ACS have looked to other funding or food services to provide additional meals for families, so the district wouldn’t have had to give out more than the federally-allotted meals?

Throughout the course of this year, Dr. Freeman afforded $6,500 of his own money to support Asheville City Schools.  For example, he contributed $2,500 to support the PODS Program; he bought Ira B. Jones Elementary School a new staff refrigerator as well as donated $600 to go towards a staff member’s needed hearing aids.

If the concern remains, Dr. Freeman has said that he will contribute funds to make-up the lost revenue for the food that was distributed, which falls in line with his stance of ensuring no student went hungry. 

On top of Dr. Freeman's own money and district-provided meals, Asheville City Schools collaborated with outside organizations, such as United Way and Buncombe County Government, to provide additional meals for families.