Tuesday, May 04, 2010

TOP STORY >> Food fight delays deal on contract for Hopson

Leader staff writer

At a special meeting last night, the school board for Pulaski County Special School District was expected to vote on the contract for incoming superintendent Charles Hopson, but time ran short, so another meeting must be called to address that issue.

The board instead voted for the second time in two weeks to compel acting Superintendent Rob McGill to sign off on grant applications that he had refused to approve because the applicant owes the district money for food services.

A long-running dispute over a debt between the district and Jody Abernathy, the grant writer – and also the director of the DREAM pre-K and after-school programs at Harris Elementary School – had put in jeopardy grant applications due Friday at the Arkansas Depart-ment of Education for after-school programs that potentially could benefit several hundred students in Sherwood and Jacksonville over the next five years.

Abernathy has managed the DREAM (Dedicating Resources to Excel All Minds) programs at Harris Elementary School since 2008.

The three applications, for $500,000 each, are to the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant program, which is administered in Arkansas by the state Department of Education. The superintendent’s signature is required on all grant applications.

If approved, two of the grants will provide after-school care for elementary age students – one to be located at the Jacksonville Boys and Girls Club for up to 200 students from Jacksonville, Pinewood and Murrell Taylor elementary schools, and the other at Sylvan Hills Elementary School for up to 230 students from that school as well as Sherwood and Oakbrooke elementary schools. The third grant is for leadership training, and college placement exam and career preparation for up to 200 students at Jacksonville High School.

The program, open to all students, would target primarily black males at risk of academic failure due to discipline problems.

The debt, and the fact that McGill was refusing to sign the grant applications, first came to the board’s attention at its last monthly meeting on April 20. That night, the board voted 5 to 2 in favor of McGill going ahead and signing the applications because of the potential benefit to students, although a plan for re-payment for the debt, then $40,666, had not been worked out.

Over the past week, McGill continued to balk, saying that he would only sign one of the three applications – the one for after-school programs at the Jacksonville Boys and Girls Club – because Abernathy’s only role had been volunteer grant writer; she stood to gain nothing if it were approved. Earlier this week, he said that he “did not feel comfortable signing an agreement with someone who owes the district money.”

Since the April 20 board meeting, school officials and Abernathy met three times to discuss the debt, and she made several payments to PCSSD food services for meals and snacks provided to the 120 children in the two programs. She still owes $26,009.

Under the terms of the motion, which passed last night 5 to 1, Abernathy will sign an agreement say she will pay the debt in full by June 30. McGill is directed to sign the grant applications, and the DREAM program at Harris will continue for the remaining two years on the current grant.

Board member Charlie Wood abstained from voting. Sandra Sawyer was absent.

After the meeting, McGill said he would sign the applications in time to meet the deadline, adding, “But I will say that I was directed to sign by the board.”

Asked to explain why her account had gone into arrears in mid-2009, Abernathy told the board, “I have been trying to discuss this with the district for months. I was trying to understand why our students were charged a different rate than other programs. I have been trying to get to the bottom of this.”

Dale Scott, the director of PCSSD Food Services, said that he has worked with Abernathy for 15 years and “never had any problem.” Nonetheless, she signed a contract – in October 2009 – with clearly stated prices for breakfast, lunch and snacks for DREAM participants.

“We’ve billed her every month, and she kept saying she would pay,” Scott said. “We’ve got to collect this money or the state will jump our case. If we spend their money on food, we have got to recoup it.”

“The contract was willingly signed and we expect that it be lived up to,” said Wood. “If the money were here tomorrow, I would drop all this.”

Scott said Abernathy “had been asking for a meeting, but I explained my part and why pre-school kids are not part of the free- and reduced-price lunch program for the county (district). I don’t make the rules.”

Abernathy said last year she began to question the prices she agreed to, because they are higher than the other pre-school programs in the district, such as Headstart and are also higher than the full meal prices in school cafeterias. Nearly all students in the two DREAM programs qualify for free- or reduce-price lunches because of family income.

Abernathy says she turns no one away because of inability to pay, which had been policy with the previous, district-run pre-school program at Harris. That program, which had been mandated by courts after district re-zoning, dissolved because of funding mismanagement, and Abernathy stepped in to continue the program. She is an independent contractor, not a district employee.

At issue are the charges for the DREAM pre-school program for 3- and 4-year-olds. Because the children are not enrolled in the district, they are classified as non-students, so adult food pricing applies.

So, according to her contract with the district, Abernathy pays $1.75 per breakfast, $3 per lunch and 73 cents per snack for the 40 children in the DREAM pre-school program, for which she is reimbursed in part by the Arkansas Better Chance pre-school program.

In contrast, meal prices in the district’s elementary schools are $1.25 for breakfast, $2 for lunch and 60 cents for snack. Reduced-price meals are 95 cents for breakfast, $1.60 for lunches and 60 cents for snacks.

Scott explained that the district is not gouging Abernathy at $3 per lunch, but in fact is barely making enough to cover the costs over the $2.89 for commodity foods used in the programs. He says the prices are set by the state.

“We render the least amount we can charge,” Scott said. “At $3, we make 11 cents on non-student meals … nothing for the labor, electricity, water or anything to produce that meal.”

Abernathy also pays the district $10,000 for transportation of students from Sherwood schools as well as some from Horace Mann Magnet School in Little Rock to the after-school program at Harris. She pointed out that means a one-point drop-off that saves the district money.

Several board members commented that Abernathy actually was providing a service to the district by stepping in to provide the programs that were part of the court-ordered desegregation plan.

Mayor Gary Fletcher told the board the programs that the grants could provide are “important to the quality of life” in Jacksonville.

“I hope that this can be worked out,” Fletcher said. “The business of the day is kids – let’s finish with that.”

Brenda Bowles, the district’s assistant superintendent for pupil equity and student services – who is also Abernathy’s mother – told the board that while she expects her daughter to pay her debt, it was important to understand Abernathy’s contributions to Harris Elementary, which include a grant and volunteer labor for refurbishing the bathrooms and a grant for new playground equipment.