CPS spent millions on outside food; can’t say who got a third of it

SHARE CPS spent millions on outside food; can’t say who got a third of it
SHARE CPS spent millions on outside food; can’t say who got a third of it

More than $150,000 in pizza from Connie’s and Lou Malnati’s.

More than $200,000 in Subway sandwiches.

Those are just some of the expenditures that a cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools made during the last school year, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars on fast food, according to public records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

But CPS can’t say, for the most part, whether CPS students or bureaucrats got to eat it.

Within hours of CPS’ release of the records Tuesday, which was late by about two months under state law, the district announced plans to reform its food spending policy.

CPS said its own audit showed that the district spent a total of $2.9 million on food from outside vendors between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2015, and nearly $1.5 million of that was authorized by the central office. CPS also said more than a third couldn’t be accounted for because the spending was miscoded or lacked detail.

“That’s inexcusable at a time when we’re cutting nurses and counselors and, you know, they should have a zero line-item budget allowance for any kind of food for central office,” said Wendy Katten of the parent group Raise Your Hand, which has been calling on CPS for months to cut wasteful spending.

Though she acknowledged $1.5 million is a small fraction of the $480 million CPS still needs to balance its budget, she called the spending “an excessive show of decadent spending when kids in district schools are being starved of resources.”

“We now have high schools that have no college counselors,” she said. “How many college counselors could this have bought?”

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said the district has tried to reduce administrative spending several ways.

“When the Sun-Times asked us about our food spending, internal auditors took a close look into the issue, discovered unacceptable spending, and issued strict new guidelines so that we can send every possible dollar to the classroom,” Bittner said.

In early July, as CPS announced deep budget cuts and 1,000 layoffs, the Sun-Times filed a Freedom of Information Act asking for details of spending that totaled $141,191 for Connie’s Pizza; $207,651 for Subway; about $10,108 to Lou Malnati’s; and various other outside food suppliers that totaled more than $82,000.

CPS released those invoices and purchase orders Tuesday.

Some of the orders at Subway — the largest of the outside food vendors — included details about their purpose, some of it clearly for students.

CPS’ counseling and postsecondary advising department bought $600 in boxed lunches for an essay writing workshop for students applying for full-ride Gates Millennium Scholarships. Gage Park High School bought 100 $10 gift cards as “student attendance incentives” in March, and Uplift Community High School also bought $1,000 in boxed lunches in June as a “student incentive.”

But many more were vague.

CPS’ early college and career office spent $1,165 on 230 box lunches and three cases of water to be delivered to Robert Morris University on a Thursday in February.

CPS’ professional learning office spent $482 on 66 boxed lunches for a Saturday in May without explaining why on paper, and then $500 in sandwiches for that same day, citing “framework specialist catering.”

Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy ordered 100 Subway gift cards for $5 each in February but didn’t say on the paperwork who they were for.

Connie’s Pizza was popular at sports banquets and field trips, but none of the Lou Malnati’s invoices listed any reason for the orders.

CPS notified principals and staff Tuesday evening of changes to food spending rules, Bittner said.

No CPS money can be spent now on events involving only central office staff, including department meetings, or on any trainings lasting less than four hours.

Spending on students and parents can’t exceed $10 per person on food during a normal mealtime.

All refreshment spending must be approved in advance by a designated higher-up, and a sign-in sheet or other proof of attendees must be included with reimbursement papers.

“Our responsibility is to make sure every possible dollar reaches the classroom,” CEO Forrest Claypool said in an email. “In our challenging budget climate, we can’t waste money on unacceptable and undocumented Central Office food expenses.”

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