In the beginning, there was Genesis.
On Aug. 21, 2008, the Columbus Municipal School District, through its food service operator Aramark, catered an event for 100 people for Genesis Church. The $800 price included $254.48 in wages paid to school district employees.
Over the next five years, this practice of providing catering for non-school events was repeated 67 times under two different school superintendents, Dr. Del Phillips and Dr. Martha Liddell.
From the beginning, it was bad policy: It is not heresy to demand that school resources be used for the purposes in which they were intended. To stray from that course undermines public confidence in our institutions.
But as information obtained by The Dispatch through a Freedom of Information Act public records request clearly illustrates, the practice was not simply bad policy, but bad policy that in time became seriously corrupted.
In today’s Dispatch, we take a close look at the catering service provided by the district, a report backed up by dozens of pages of documentation.
While it is difficult to determine just how much of a sweetheart deal these catering jobs really turned out to be — food costs for the individual functions could not be distinguished from legitimate food purchases of the district — a look at the labor costs for the events reveals that there were at least 13 instances where the labor costs alone exceeded the total fees reimbursed to the district. Barring something akin to the “loaves and fishes” miracles of the Bible, it is clear that the district provided catering for these events at a loss.
But even if the district has been fully compensated for the events it catered, the practice is troubling in the sense that a cut-rate catering service was provided only to those who were well-connected to school district officials.
Mayor Robert Smith used the CMSD catering service twice. Liddell used the service both when she served as assistant schools superintendent and superintendent. School board members Glenn Lautzenhiser and Currie Fisher were affiliated with non-school related organizations that used CMSD catering. The aforementioned Genesis Church and pastor Darren Leach used the service on nine separate occasions.
There should be no ambiguity about the mission of the Columbus Municipal School District: It begins and ends with providing our children with the best possible education.
That mission most definitely does not include providing cut-rate catering services to friends of district personnel.
Yet it is clear that, at least in this instance, the Good Old Boy system still persists, to the detriment of our community.
The CMSD Board, under president Jason Spears, terminated its contract with Aramark on May 28 and has since been diligent in investigation the abuses detailed in today’s report. Spears has said that the CMSD expects to be reimbursed for all the costs associated with the catering services performed by the district. We further insist that those who abused the service will be held accountable.
It is the first step in rebuilding public trust in the school system.
In the beginning, there was Genesis, followed by Revelation.
Now it is time for Exodus.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.