Errors were made, acknowledged Asheville City Schools Superintendent Gene Freeman, in a June 23 “update about our school nutrition department” sent to the district’s students, staff and families. In the email, he said that the N.C. Department of Public Instruction had reviewed the system’s food service operations and detected discrepancies “in the school district’s meal counting and meal claiming process.”
Findings by the state’s administrative reviewers, however, went further than Freeman’s admission, pointing to problems higher up in the district. The errors, which occurred at the Positive Opportunities to Develop Success remote learning sites, were not mere oversights by then-Director of School Nutrition Katie Treece or other ACS nutrition staff — they were the result of deliberate interference by school administrators.
“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,” the NCDPI report says. “These findings, as described, constitute a serious violation of the district’s agreements with the state agency to administer the federally assisted school nutrition program(s) in Asheville City Schools.
“Records obtained during the review suggest a district administrator, who had not participated in required continuing education and may not have been knowledgeable of program regulations, provided direct instructions to staff that were inconsistent with regulatory requirements,” the report adds.
Although the report does not directly specify who was involved in blocking Treece’s efforts, it notes that only she and Freeman had signed a document committing the district to follow the state’s nutrition program regulations. As required corrective actions, the district must “describe the role of the superintendent in the administration and operation of the school nutrition programs,” as well as allow the nutrition director “to question and/or report practices that violate the agreement and program-related regulations and policies.”
Freeman’s email to the school community said that he takes “full responsibility for the errors noted by NCDPI.” However, in response to a June 24 request for comment, he denied having prevented Treece from carrying out her duties and said he did not know who had done so.
“I have no idea why [the requirements] were not fulfilled other than the fact that I instructed staff to ensure our students received meals as we were in the midst of a pandemic,” Freeman added. “No one raised concerns to me until I started holding them more accountable this spring.”
Price to pay
At the core of the district’s noncompliance, explains the NCDPI report, is incorrect counting of meals served at PODS through the Summer Food Service Program. That initiative, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered by the state, is meant to provide free healthy meals to children in low-income areas. Sites that serve those meals are reimbursed by the state based on the number served.
Only meals that are actually served to students are eligible for reimbursement. However, the report indicates that those distributing food at PODS claimed other meals, such as those served to parents and school staff, for reimbursement through the program. “Non-program adults must pay for meals when received, and non-program adult meals are not claimed for federal reimbursement,” NCDPI officials list as a required corrective action.
Across nine PODS sites, according to the NCDPI report, the Asheville school district claimed reimbursement for over 1,200 more meals between September and December 2020 than were legally allowed. Jeffrey Squires, an NCDPI administrative review specialist, said in a June 7 letter to Freeman that the system would thus have to repay nearly $5,000 to the state.
NCDPI spokesperson Blair Rhoades said Squires was unavailable for further comment because the department’s review was still underway.
“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,” Freeman said in his June 23 email. He emphasized that “no one profited from these errors” and that all funds had been returned.
Neither Freeman’s email nor the NCDPI report indicate that any ACS administrator will face demotion, a pay cut or termination over their role in the matter. (Treece resigned from the system in March and currently works as the assistant director of nutrition services at the Valley View School District in Romeoville, Ill. She did not respond to a request for comment.)
But several parents are calling for Freeman’s resignation, including Pepi Acebo, president of the Montford North Star Academy Parent-Teacher Organization and a recent candidate for the Asheville City Board of Education. In a June 23 post to the Asheville Politics Facebook group, 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 interference outlined by the NCDPI.
“I do not answer questions based on hearsay. However, Ms. Treece was overseeing a department that lost a million dollars over five years and continued to lose money under her tenure,” Freeman said in response to Acebo’s claim. Cassida did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
James Carter, the chair of the Asheville school board, did not respond to a request for comment regarding disciplinary action that might be taken against Freeman or other administrators.
The full NCDPI report is embedded below.