Columbus schools' food service has been overpaying for food, making unauthorized purchases and missing out on government reimbursements, according to an internal audit of the financially troubled department.
The systemic problems, resulting from poor management and a lack of internal communication, have contributed to a persistent multimillion-dollar deficit in the school district's food-service department.

According to the audit, which was discussed at a recent meeting of the district's audit and accountability committee, the department lacked internal controls and defined processes for buying food, monitoring inventory and billing. That caused employees to make their rules as they went.

"Many employees expressed their ultimate goal is to ‘feed the children,'" the audit stated. "This philosophy, along with the disjoint between management and staff, has caused the district to incur expenses over and above which is normal and expected."

Internal Auditor Harold Saunders said the district has already implemented some changes, and more are on the way.

In one case, the audit found that more than half the products bought from one vendor were not approved items. Those products were, on average, 20 percent more expensive than the approved items, costing a projected $252,000.

In other cases, food vendors were billing the district twice for the same items and overcharged $11,200 in the first three months of this school year.

Saunders said the district has received credits from the two vendors that overcharged. It also has revised its purchasing system to ensure that only approved items are ordered.

Because of a missed deadline and underreporting the number of meals served, the department lost out on about $340,000 in federal and state subsidies for feeding low-income students this school year.

The food-service department has a projected budget of $25.5 million for this fiscal year.

Food Services Director Dudley Hawkey will step down and be reassigned to another position in the department this summer. Hawkey said he was resigning the position for personal reasons that have nothing to do with the report's findings.

His recent job evaluations describe poor management, dysfunctional operations, low staff morale and a lack of control over the department.