Credit: USDA

For more than a year, Recovery School District officials have been at odds with a local charter organization over how many of its students should have received federally subsidized school meals.

RSD officials say ReNEW Schools owes the school district hundreds of thousands of dollars for 890,723 student meals. The federal government should have paid RSD for most of the costs of those meals, but reimbursement deadlines passed while RSD and ReNEW tried to sort out problems.

One bill, signed by RSD superintendent Patrick Dobard in October 2012, said that ReNEW owes $557,763 to RSD for food services. A spreadsheet provided by RSD puts the total invoice amount for food services at $496,812.

ReNEW disputes the figures and, according to documents reviewed by The Lens, has said it’s willing to pay less than half of that — between $230,000 and $240,000, which it has been paying in monthly installments. The two sides are now in mediation, which means those numbers could change further.

Though officials from ReNEW declined to discuss specifics, public records shine some light on the issue.

At the heart of the disagreement, the records show, are a series of communications and record-keeping difficulties on both sides. They hint at the challenges the Recovery School District faces in trying to manage the operations of charter schools, which have some autonomy but are still overseen by the publicly funded district.

“We already paid those bills for them. … Now we’re just trying to get some of that money back.” —DeLano Ford, deputy superintendent of services and operations at the Recovery School District

“At the meat of many of these situations is a friction between the authorizer and the charter school organization,” said Priscilla Wohlstetter, a professor at Teacher’s College at Columbia University who has written about school leadership and charter management organizations.

Wohlstetter told The Lens that although charter organizations are given autonomy, it’s important for the district to make sure that organizations have the skills, training and capacity to follow mandates issued by the district — in this case, RSD.

“You can’t mandate something if people don’t have either the motivation to do it or the skills to do it,” she said.

DeLano Ford, the deputy superintendent of services and operations at RSD, said he wasn’t involved when the issue first arose, so he couldn’t say for sure what happened. But he thinks there “may be some misunderstanding of the rules and the laws” among ReNEW staff.

“Since we administer the program, we are pretty clear about what the laws are,” he said. “Maybe we did not go back and reiterate them well enough.”

Indeed, emails and records reviewed by The Lens show a gap in understanding.

In September 2011, for example, an employee at ReNEW wrote someone at RSD to ask what exactly ReNEW had to provide to verify that students were eligible for free and reduced meals.

“I have the column titles, but I know that not all of them are needed for processing applications,” wrote Andrew Cox, the director of data and assessment at ReNEW Schools. “Because our data is spread over several places, knowing the minimum fields needed to get that processing started will let me make the files sooner.”

ReNEW finally provided the files in the format requested in January 2012 — five months after RSD first asked for them.

RSD’s business with charter schools

Though the state Recovery School District is composed mostly of charter schools, it provides an à la carte menu of administrative services to its schools. One of them is school meals.

RSD is authorized to administer the National School Lunch program, a federal program designed to provide nutritionally balanced meals to students whose families cannot afford them.

In the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, RSD contracted with national food vendor Aramark Corp. for food service. Under the arrangement, Aramark billed RSD for all the meals it delivered to schools in its jurisdiction, including ReNEW’s.

As of February of this year, state figures showed ReNEW had about 2,440 students across five campuses; at least 94 percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Aramark charged a fixed price for each breakfast, lunch and snack. In 2011-12, students were charged $1.90 to $2.25 for non-subsidized lunches, depending on their grade. Federally-subsidized lunches cost $2.80 each. The federal government picked up $2.70 for students who qualified for free lunch and $2.30 for those who qualified for reduced-price lunch. In each case, the school was supposed to pay 10 cents for each lunch.

Under the system, Aramark billed RSD for each meal based on which students it had served. RSD would compare those bills against the school district’s database to verify which students’ meals should be covered by the federal government. RSD then was supposed to send a claim to an office at the state Department of Education, which requested reimbursement from the federal government.

Once RSD received the reimbursement, it paid Aramark and billed the school for the share of meals not covered by the federal government.

RSD: Improper paperwork to blame

So where did things go awry? Most of the disputed amount— about $420,000, according to an October 2012 tally — is from the 2011-12 school year. Ford said the root of the problem was in the documentation ReNEW provided to show that these students qualified for federal subsidies.

That year, RSD didn’t submit several claims for free and reduced-priced meals to the federal government. The reason, according to RSD: It never received the proper files from ReNEW to document which students qualified for the subsidies. As a result, Aramark billed RSD for the full price of the meals, which RSD paid.

Since then, RSD has been trying to get that money from ReNEW. “We already paid those bills for them,” Ford said. “Now we’re just trying to get some of that money back.”

RSD needed a variety of documents to prove that students qualified for federal aid: student enrollment files, their applications to participate in the meal program, and in some cases birth certificates and files showing that they were on government aid.

If RSD didn’t have all the required documentation, those students’ meals were charged at the non-subsidized rate.

One problem, according to documents and interviews, was that during the 2011-12 school year, ReNEW moved to a new student information system. That system stores students’ names, grades, addresses, birth dates and enrollment dates — files that have to be kept up to date as students move or withdraw.

For months, according to the emails, ReNEW couldn’t provide the student information files to RSD in the proper format.

“We don’t have the capability to generate this file,” Cox wrote to an RSD employee at one point. “We don’t use Power School any more, so that particular file format doesn’t apply. And we don’t have all of the information collected into our SIS because of technical difficulties on their end.”

“There’s a lot of push to get charter organizations up. It’s one thing when you’re bringing in organizations who have played this game before. … But when you have this new blood, they’re sometimes coming in too quickly and are a little ill-prepared.” —Jeffrey Henig, Columbia University

Betty Coulon, RSD’s director of information and technology, responded in September 2011: “It appears you all have some serious problems facing you. For every day we do not receive the Student Data in the format we need, you are continuing to lose money. Without this information we cannot process free and reduced applications.”

Besides those files, ReNEW also had to submit additional documentation, including birth certificates, for students whose families received food stamps or other government assistance. A couple of months into the school year, Cox wrote that he didn’t realize that RSD needed birth certificates for those students.

In explaining the shortcomings in paperwork, Ford told The Lens, “They probably felt they provided us with enough information to prove to us that the students are free,” he said. “But not according to the law.”

Although the bulk of the disagreement stems from these problems with student data, that doesn’t explain what happened in 2010-11, when ReNEW disputed $137,000 in meal charges.

An October 2012 letter from Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard breaks down the disputed amounts by school year. For 2010-11, he wrote, “While billing could have been improved, there is no doubt that ReNEW received a service which the RSD has paid for in full.”

The Lens tried to speak with officials from ReNEW several times since learning of the dispute in January. Alexander Pearlman, the executive director of operations at ReNEW, declined comment in January.

On Wednesday, Kevin Guitterrez, the president and chief operating officer of ReNEW, told The Lens that he would be willing to speak about the matter once mediation is complete. He said he couldn’t confirm the dollar figure that either side claims is owed because they could change in mediation.

Documents show confusion, cost of delays

Documents and correspondence between officials at RSD and ReNEW show months of back-and-forth between the organizations about precisely what information had to be provided, in what format, to the district.

“It’s pretty confusing to have different people asking for different files at the same time,” wrote Andrew Cox, ReNEW’s director of data and assessment, in September 2011.

At the time, Cox was dealing with officials from both RSD and Aramark, who were seeking data from the student information files. According to RSD officials, Aramark had gotten involved with ReNEW to aid in the creation and submission of properly formatted files.

“Can we get some clear guidelines and a single person to communicate with who can tell us all of the various files that are needed, the specifications for those files, the essential pieces of information within those files and who can work with us on a timeline for those files?” Cox asked.

Jeffrey Henig, another professor at the Teacher’s College at Columbia University who has written on charter schools and school reform, said that the problems could have stemmed from ReNEW’s status as a new charter organization in New Orleans. ReNEW started in 2010.

“There’s a lot of push to get charter organizations up. It’s one thing when you’re bringing in organizations who have played this game before,” Henig said. “But when you have this new blood, they’re sometimes coming in too quickly and are a little ill-prepared.”

Once the documentation problem had been addressed, the correspondence shifted to the cost of the meals that had been served already.

“ReNEW did not provide a workable student data file even though the RSD and Aramark asked for it in detail and offered assistance throughout the 11-12 school year,” Dobard wrote in his October 2012 letter to ReNEW.

“The RSD cannot afford to bear the financial burden for these errors, though we realize they were very costly.”

Though records provided to The Lens by RSD indicate the ReNEW matter has occupied a lot of RSD officials’ time, another charter school has reported that it too had issues with RSD over food services billing.

International High School received a $47,000 bill from the state regarding lunch service, but administrators there said the school only owed $8,500.

In the hands of attorneys

Starting this school year, ReNEW and International stopped contracting with RSD for its meals programs, said RSD spokeswoman Zoey Reed.

Attorneys for the two sides are in mediation to come to an agreement about the remaining money. “This is not a ‘we gotcha’ or us-versus-them environment,” Ford said. “We’re all being forthright and honest.”

Reed said in February that ReNEW continues to send payments for what they believe they owe, which an RSD spreadsheet puts at about $232,400.

The final payment was due in April. On Wednesday, The Lens asked RSD whether ReNEW had made all the payments; Ford said he would need time to answer.

Though RSD supplied documents and information for this article over the course of three and a half months, Reed sent an email to The Lens on April 1 asking that it withhold any story about the dispute until the two sides resolve the matter through mediation.

In a followup letter on April 30, Dobard and Guitterrez wrote, “We do not see the value in publishing this story at this stage of the process … Our organizations are willing to provide a joint statement after the mediation is complete.”

Della Hasselle

Della Hasselle, a freelance journalist and producer, reports environmental and criminal justice stories for The Lens. A graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School and the New Orleans Center for Creative...