On Second Thought

HISD isn't laughing now about a breakfast program

Does anyone know a good whiplash doctor?

They're going to need one at the Houston school district, where soft-tissue injuries are rampant -- especially in the public relations department -- over the Breakfast in the Classroom fiasco.

When the Houston Press first broke the story about how the district and its food contractor, Aramark, were said to be wildly inflating the numbers of free breakfasts served through the program (see "Eating It Up," by Sarah Fenske, November 4), the district could not have pushed back any harder.

"If you listen closely, you can almost hear it: parents all around Houston laughing at the Houston Press," HISD spokesman Terry Abbott wrote in a letter published in the Press. "This article is inaccurate and unfair and, most of all, downright silly."

A few months later, when the state announced it would be investigating the program, the district went out of its way to emphasize the audit was strictly routine, nothing to see here folks, keep moving, show's over.

And then on February 4 -- late in the afternoon on a Friday, the classic time for bureaucracies to disclose bad news -- HISD announced that Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra had indefinitely suspended the Breakfast in the Classroom program.

"This is a very well-intentioned program that needs stricter controls and better management," said Saavedra, who failed to include a decibel count of how loudly Houstonians were laughing.

Auditors visited six of the 40 HISD schools with the program; in five of them they found inaccurate accounting. Meals delivered to the classroom were being counted as eaten even if they were untouched -- which puts federal money in the pockets of the district and Aramark. The company received $4.75 million from HISD last year.

As first reported in the Press, Aramark developed the classroom-breakfast plan because kids eligible for free breakfasts wouldn't go to the cafeteria to eat them, and that didn't help Aramark sell food. So instead they load up coolers with juice and breakfast food and deliver them to the classroom -- where they still go uneaten.

Orell Fitzsimmons, field director for Service Employees International Union Local 100, also had come in for district criticism when he complained about the program.

He says he's pleased with the decision of the newly installed Saavedra, which mirrored an earlier tough call on test scores. "What I think we're seeing here is the superintendent, if he defends a problem then he owns it," Fitzsimmons says. "But if he investigates it and fixes it, it's not seen as his problem."

Making News

Let's face it: The life of a television news photographer can be a pain. There's a lot of lugging of equipment, a lot of dealing with reporters' egos, a lot of hurry-up-and-wait shuffling about.

So if one of them wants to move things along a bit -- and be a good citizen in the process -- should we complain?

Well, yeah -- when it involves calling the cops to hassle a homeless guy just so you can get some video. That's what witnesses say a Channel 13 cameraman did February 2 under the Pierce Elevated.

Homeless people who live there say they've been getting increased pressure lately from the police; they claim it's because of the opening of the new Metro building nearby. Activists decided to do something about it, so they contacted media outlets around town and told them to come to a spot under the highway the morning of February 2, where they would stand in solidarity with their less affluent brethren as they all faced down the Man.

Except the Man didn't cooperate. Or even show up. About two dozen activists, along with a handful of media reps, stood around watching some homeless people sleep.

A cop car cruised by; one of the media people, in an unmarked white van, tried in vain to flag him down. Minutes later the cop car returned and went up to the van where the same guy -- a Kenny Rogers look-alike -- pointed to one of the homeless folks. The cops then arrested the guy for urinating in public, while Kenny's clone filmed it with a Channel 13 camera.

All this annoyed the activists greatly, so they started badgering Kenny, who drove off. They then moved on to badgering the cops, who told them, essentially, "Hey, we were responding to a call about public urination from that Kenny Rogers-looking guy."

Reporters there were also taken aback by the vigilante justice. "We were all pretty appalled that this guy would call in for an arrest just to get a shot," says one of the media reps who was present.

Much mystery remains about Kenny's twin, who apparently is named Marshall. An HPD spokesman directed questions toward a special-ops officer who didn't return phone calls. Channel 13 news director David Strickland referred questions to a spokesman who refused to comment or make Kenny/Marshall available.

But know this, all ye full-bladdered bums fouling our fair city's streets: Justice is on the prowl. With a camera and an impatient attitude.

Rest Not in Peace

A true Texas tale will play out in a courtroom beginning February 9. The cast includes the widow and descendants of former Houston oilman and philanthropist Floyd Cailloux, the legendary local law firm Baker Botts and Wells Fargo bank.

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