Parents rebuked Salt Lake City school board members Tuesday night, accusing them of "bullying" anyone who seeks answers as to why the district dumped dozens of kids’ lunches in January.
"You have no desire to give us the truth," parent Erica Lukes told board members, who delayed plans to release investigative reports into the policies and actions that led a cafeteria worker to throw out the lunches of students with unpaid debts, after the students had been served.
The incident at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City drew national attention and an apology from the district, and spurred it and others to change their policies for handling debts for meals.
Parents also defended the cafeteria worker, who received a written warning from the district in February and resigned in late August. The worker, known as Miss Shirley, has said she was reluctantly complying with her supervisor’s expectations.
"Miss Shirley ran our Uintah lunchroom as a safe space," said parent Ashley Hoopes. "There is a little bit of mourning at the school for the loss of this woman."
The Tribune has agreed not to use Shirley’s last name because of threats that she said had been made against her. She attended Tuesday’s school board meeting and cried as parents praised her.
District spokesman Jason Olsen said the district did not ask her to resign, and did not respond to a question about whether her departure was related to the lunch controversy.
Hoopes accused the district of "pinning all of this on this part-time, 61-year-old lunch worker."
Parent Annie Payne said the fault lies higher up in the school’s lunch department, whose accounting software failed to send promised email notifications to parents when children’s lunch accounts ran low. Up to 40 Uintah students picked out lunches, then were required to surrender the meals to Miss Shirley, who put the food in the trash once a past-due balance was discovered. The children received snacks of milk and fruit instead.
The district has pledged to serve kids full lunches regardless of their parents’ balances and to communicate only with parents about past-due accounts.
District Superintendent McKell Withers has said two employees were ultimately disciplined. The warning letter to Shirley had alleged that she provided "false" and "misleading" information to district officials that she had on occasion thrown out kids’ meals when she had not, and that she attempted to contact parents with outstanding balances and consulted with the principal when she had not.
Shirley told the Tribune in a March interview that she didn’t think she had lied to her supervisors or given them false information.
She did acknowledge, however, it was difficult to always notify all parents of their balances because she was short-staffed. She also said she did not routinely throw away kids’ lunches when they were behind on balances because she didn’t have the heart to.
The board commissioned an independent audit of the dumped lunches to "repair the public’s trust," board president Kristi Swett wrote in a February memo. The board planned to review the audit’s findings on Tuesday, but Swett announced that one of the reports was "preliminary" and a final report would be issued in two weeks. Swett said only that "a multi-faceted breakdown of communication" led up to the discarding of lunches. The board rejected parents’ request to release the reports at least a day before the next meeting to give the public a chance to prepare questions. Withers said the dialogue could continue in subsequent meetings.
Lukes called the audit’s delay "a very strategic ploy.
"They formulated a plan to divert attention away from this and thought they could sweep their reports under the carpet," Lukes said.
Full disclosure "is the least they owe us," she said.
"There’s a bully mentality, and that’s the way they do business," she said. "They did that to Shirley, they did that to the parents who speak out, and they did that to our children."
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