Coast Unified district chief investigated over school lunch program

The family of a North Coast school district superintendent applied for and was accepted into a school lunch program intended for low-income students, prompting a district investigation.

Trustees of the Coast Unified School District expect to hear next Thursday whether the family of Superintendent Chris Adams did anything inappropriate in applying for free and reduced-price meals for their two daughters.

According to district legal counsel Roman Muñoz — who is doing the investigation — Adams did not.

Muñoz wrote in an email to The Tribune that “a district employee mistakenly entered the Adamses’ household monthly income as annual income,” causing them to become “erroneously eligible for free and reduced meals.”

They did not receive any meals, Muñoz added.

Adams initially declined to answer any questions as to why his family filled out the form — his salary alone, not counting his wife’s income as an education consultant, is nearly $160,000 a year — or share any information, citing legal advice by Muñoz.

“It’s killing me,” the superintendent said. “I want the truth out there now. I want to tell you more,” but he said he’s been told not to do so until investigations are complete.

But later Wednesday, he said that in the four years he and his family have been in the district, “We’ve always filled those forms out. They’re in the packet. At the top, it says ‘all households fill out the form.’ My wife said, ‘There are many things to fill out in the packet, so I fill them all out.’ Why would I turn my numbers in to the district? Why wouldn’t I? I’m asking other people to do it. I’ve always thought that if I put my information out there, the people who can qualify for the program would feel more confident in putting theirs out there.”

Adams’ wife could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

On Sept. 12, Coast Unified school board President Cindy Fratto authorized Muñoz to investigate the propriety of the Adamses’ application. Muñoz, who is with a Sacramento law firm, estimates the investigation will cost less than $5,000.

The district’s policy, according to food services manager Steve Archuleta, is to encourage every family to fill out the financial form requesting the free or reduced-cost meals. The forms can also qualify the family for other aid through the school.

Coast Unified’s form states at the top in bold letters that it’s an application for free and reduced-price meals, and states above the first and third sections that all households are to complete them. The second section doesn’t make such an admonition, but states, “List all adult household members, regardless of their income,” and asks for amounts and sources of income.

The free and reduced-priced meal application is listed as one of the “Optional Forms,” according to a letter accompanying the form provided for Santa Lucia Middle School parents. One of the Adamses’ children attends the school. Parents are instructed to “Read and complete forms as needed.”

San Luis Coastal Unified School District’s food aid application uses language similar to Coast Unified’s. The South County’s Lucia Mar district — the largest school system in the county — does not direct all households to fill out the application.

Cayucos Elementary School District Superintendent James Brescia said at the beginning of the year, “a letter is sent out to everyone with the welcome packet. We ask everyone to fill it out,” he said of the meals application.

“We don’t receive them all back, but a large proportion (of families) do fill them out.”

Other local school districts also include the forms with first-day-of-school packets sent home with students.County schools Superintendent Julian Crocker said that practice has been longstanding, as the federal Title I program began in 1964.

The percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price meals is also used to determine eligibility for other aid programs. Schools can also receive additional federal funding if they serve a large number of low-income families based on the proportion of students getting that aid.

“It’s not an effort to pad the numbers, but to ensure that students who do qualify are designated” to receive the benefits, Crocker said.

“Frankly, I’d argue that a district was being irresponsible if it didn’t try to identify every student,” he said. “Filling out the fair and reduced-price lunch application is the backbone of the system of making sure nobody falls through the cracks.”

About 57 percent of Coast Unified students are qualified for free and reduced-cost lunches, Archuleta said.

In an email to The Tribune on Tuesday, Muñoz wrote that a district employee “convincingly stated that she made a mistake and apologized” and also admitted to making other mistakes in the eligibility forms.

A separate investigation is expected into who leaked the confidential document, which also includes a Social Security number, to independent journalist Dan Blackburn, who published a story about the application online Monday. The Tribune’s sister publication, The Cambrian, received a copy of the Adamses’ form in the mail Wednesday.

Archuleta said that distributing that document is a federal crime.