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Dispatch special report: School's outside catering under investigation

 

Sarah Fowler and Birney Imes

 

For five years, the Columbus Municipal School District, through the use of its food service contractor, Aramark, has operated an outside catering service providing food for private events, often at a loss to the district. A veteran school superintendent calls the practice, "highly unusual."  

 

Clients using the service have included Mayor Robert Smith, former Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell, Darren Leach of Genesis Church, Realtor Doris Hardy and even a couple who used the service for their wedding reception. In addition, school board members Glenn Lautzenhiser and Currie Fisher were affiliated with organizations that used the district as a caterer. 

 

The practice began in 2008 when, under the leadership of then Superintendent Del Phillips, the school board hired Aramark to manage its food service operation. 

 

According to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Aramark catered 68 non-school events in the five years the company was under contract with the district. 

 

Aramark provided food and supervision while district employees worked the events. Though food costs were not included in the documents obtained by The Dispatch, details including the menu, number of guests and labor costs were noted. In at least 13 events catered by the district, labor costs exceeded the total amount charged for the event. All but two of those instances occurred when Liddell was head of the district. 

 

The first of those occurred in March 2011 when the district provided meals for 50 people at the Trotter Convention Center for soon-to-be interim-Superintendent Liddell's company, Success Makers Associates. For that luncheon the district charged Liddell $540.50 for an event that required $547.41 in labor costs. For a Liddell Christmas reception later that year, the district charged Liddell $65.40 for an event with $72.42 in labor costs. The pattern continued throughout Liddell's two years as head of the district with at least 11 district-catered events costing more than they took in. Five of those were for Darren Leach of Genesis Church. 

 

In November the district formally terminated Liddell signing a non-disclosure pact as part of her severance package. The Dispatch was unable to reach Liddell for comment. 

 

During Phillips' tenure as superintendent the district catered two events for Mayor Robert Smith. On election night, June 2, 2009, CMSD provided wrap sandwiches, chicken pineapple sticks, cheese puffs, chicken drumettes, barbecue meatballs, gravy meatballs, egg rolls, fruit trays and mini-cheesecakes for 100 people at the Colonial Room at the Holiday Inn. For that event, the district charged $550, including $115.96 for labor. That event was paid for by the Committee to Re-elect Robert E. Smith Sr. Mayor. Smith also wrote a check to the district for $935.92 to pay for a December 2008 event catered by the school district at the Rosenzweig Arts Center. Records show that $391.50 of the total went for labor. 

 

In an emailed response, Phillips said it's been almost three years since he left the district and has little memory of school catering operations, then headed up by Craig Shannon. 

 

"I believe the catering part of the contract with Aramark was pretty standard for national food service vendors, but I can't remember the details," Phillips wrote. 

 

 

 

'Highly unusual' practice 

 

Starkville school superintendent Dr. Lewis Holloway, who has led school districts in Georgia, Arkansas, Alaska and Mississippi, disagrees. He called the practice, "highly unusual."  

 

"I've never heard of it," Holloway said. "I just can't see why, for any reason, why the school district would be involved in some private catering." 

 

Holloway said while there's nothing to keep school employees from working for Aramark or anyone else on their own time, his district wouldn't pay them. 

 

"Never have we been off-site and utilized our employees," he said. 

 

According to school board president Jason Spears, the board was not aware of any illicit actions involving Aramark and outside catering jobs. 

 

"We were not aware of the extent of catering that was being conducted," Spears said. 

 

He added, "We were not aware that they were catering events off of school property." 

 

Spears said the district severed ties with Aramark in May after an investigation into the company's practices.  

 

"There were many reasons why we severed the relationship," Spears said. 

 

 

 

Collins evasive 

 

Thomas Collins, director of Aramark's district operations, was evasive when reached for comment by telephone Thursday afternoon. Although he initially confirmed his identity, Collins later claimed The Dispatch had dialed the wrong telephone number when pressed for answers about his involvement in the matter. 

 

Sandra Peagues is a school district employee who worked with Collins, coordinated the events and provided price quotes to the client. "Mr. Collins was the food service director," Peagues said when contacted for this story. "He was the person that gave me instructions on what to do. He was the person who gave all the catering quotes. I did not give a quote. Once Mr. Collins gave the quotes, that was the quote." 

 

Emails provided in the FOIA request indicate Peagues corresponded with a majority of clients concerning the setting of menus and pricing. It is not clear whether clients negotiated directly with Peagues or with Collins through Peagues. Concerning Liddell's March 2011 Success Makers event, Peagues initially quoted a price of $640.50. Liddell responds via email, "Can you get it around ($)500 for me... that will really help me not exceed my conference budget." Peagues responded by email the following day with a revised price quote of $540.50 but with no indication of a changed menu. 

 

Peagues is now the district's food service coordinator. 

 

Red Cross Director Perneatha Evans is one of the clients who utilized the catering service. Evans used Aramark on four different occasions in 2012 and 2013. None of those events required workers from the district. Evans said anytime she needed catering, she would contact Collins directly. 

 

"I contacted Collins then someone else contacted me to finish it up," she said. 

 

 

 

Events linked to trustees 

 

One of the 2012 events catered by the district was for the American Wind Symphony Orchestra. Expenses related to that event were funneled through the Tenn-Tom Waterway Transportation Museum, a 501(c)3 organization. The district charged $420 for a series of meals that required $648.11 in wages for that event. Glenn Lautzenhiser, who was serving on the school board at the time, signed the check on behalf of the Tenn-Tom Waterway Transportation Museum. Lautzenhiser was on the committee that helped organize the symphony's event at the Columbus Lock and Dam. 

 

Lautzenhiser denied having any knowledge that school employees were used to cater the event. 

 

"I did not know that," he said. "All I knew was that Aramark had agreed to provide meals if we needed them." 

 

In early 2013 the district catered an event for 100 Black Women, an organization whose members include school board members Currie Fisher and Angela Verdell. Verdell was not on the school board at the time of the February event, however. 

 

Neither Fisher nor Verdell could be reached for this report. 

 

Spears said the investigation into Aramark's practices is ongoing. He said the board will finish its investigation before they decide whether or not to pursue any legal action. 

 

"At this time we don't have any legal action. We're still trying to investigate things," he said. 

 

The board hopes to recoup any money the district may have lost, Spears said. 

 

"We have being moving forward with looking into the catering services that were provided to understand and see what we as a board need to do to make sure that the taxpayers and children of the district have not been put at a disadvantage or loss," he said.

 

The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.

 

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