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Salt Lake City district backs off PR firm after lunch fiasco

Published February 26, 2014 10:08 am

Lunch fiasco • Officials now plan to deliver an apology — and cupcakes — to Uintah Elementary.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Leaders of the Salt Lake City School District have backed off the idea of hiring a public relations firm after national outrage over the trashing of dozens of kids' cafeteria lunches last month.

The district board's president, vice president and superintendent had decided to look into hiring a firm, sending a request for proposals, for up to $49,999, to seven companies earlier this month. A district committee then selected a winner.

But board President Kristi Swett sent an email to board members Thursday evening saying, "The RFP [request for proposals] is not a contract or a purchase and the district has not spent any money for this professional service. We are not recommending that we go forward with this option at this time."

Swett did not return calls or emails seeking further comment about the reasons behind the decision.

Board Vice President Heather Bennett, however, said in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune, "District leadership decided to wait until the independent audit is complete before discussing again how best to improve communication with our district families, our internal departments, and the digital-age media. This is an ongoing conversation as we strive for continuous improvement."

Bennett said it is not unusual for the district to issue an RFP and later decide to not pursue the services.

The Tribune broke news that the district was looking into hiring a public relations firm last week, prompting another round of backlash aimed at district leaders.

For nearly a month, the district has been besieged by parents upset that as many as 40 Uintah Elementary kids had their cafeteria lunches trashed because of their parents' past-due bills. After the public seizures of their lunches, the kids were given fruit and milk instead.

The district has since apologized and changed its procedures, pledging to only give kids full lunches from now on, no longer discuss payments with kids and improve its payment notification system. District leaders have also initiated an independent audit into the situation.

Many, however, including board members, expressed disappointment last week upon hearing the district was looking into hiring a PR firm. Swett, Bennett and Superintendent McKell Withers had decided to issue the RFP without discussing the matter with the rest of the board or public.

In her letter to board members, Swett apologized for not informing the whole board about the RFP.

Board member Tiffany Sandberg said Tuesday the majority of the board was not in favor of hiring a PR firm.

"It just seemed pretty much like a waste of money to me and my constituents," Sandberg said. "There was no need to hire a PR firm to see what we did wrong."

Board member Michael Clara said he doesn't know why it was a consideration in the first place.

"What concerned me the most was the process, that it was done in secret," Clara said. "It's just very bizarre that that's where their focus is at, the image, instead of solving the problem. I believe they've solved the problem but still have the issue of who's accountable."

For weeks, parents have been pushing the district to identify the person or people responsible for making the decision to yank lunches. Parents have also asked for a direct apology to them and their children, in addition to general statements the district has issued.

District spokesman Jason Olsen confirmed Tuesday that another apology is imminent. He said the district and its Child Nutrition Department have ordered cupcakes to distribute to Uintah students — a suggestion first offered by Uintah parent Sarah Turley at a school board meeting earlier this month.

"The district has apologized multiple times, but following up on what was said in a board meeting, the cupcakes and an additional apology will be given directly to students, teachers, and staff at the school," Olsen wrote in an email Tuesday.

Uintah parent Ashley Hoopes said Tuesday she's appreciative of the cupcakes and apology, but said parents still want to know who was responsible.

"I feel like the best apology they could give would be to assure parents that our questions are going to be answered in the external investigation and that there is going to be accountability," Hoopes said.

She said she's also glad the board has decided not to hire a PR firm.

"The best PR that they can do is free, and it's called telling the truth and communicating with parents from the beginning," she said.