That, in a nutshell, is the debate that has roiled the Anniston Board of Education in the last couple of months.
Last week, Superintendent Joan Frazier informed the board that she’d be asking state-level officials to step in and clear up a conflict over how the city’s lunchrooms are run.
In October, a board meeting erupted into a wide-ranging argument who is really in charge of cafeterias – the school’s own lunchroom administrators, leaders of the federally-funded Child Nutrition Program, or school principals.
It might seem odd to see such an intense controversy swirling around cafeterias – one part of the Model City’s school system that is unreservedly a success. At a time when the federal government is trying to improve the nutritional quality of student lunches, Anniston’s lunchrooms have been recognized for already attacking the problem – replacing chicken nuggets and French fries with more nutritional Italian and Mexican dishes.
So where’s their beef? What is it that has so many people on edge? Board members and school officials have been reluctant to tell the full story, some of them saying that story would require them to discuss “the good name and character of individuals.”
That’s a phrase officials typically invoke when they want to meet in secret to discuss personnel matters.
Here’s what we do know:
-- A personnel issue – in particular, a conflict between management and an employee in a lunchroom – is at the heart of the controversy, according to lunchroom workers. Superintendent Joan Frazier confirmed that it is a personnel matter. Frazier said that no one has been fired, and she said the issue is not about hiring practices. Asked whether it involved a disciplinary action against an employee, Frazier said “not at this time.”
-- The issue may have a racial angle, though not even the parties involved seem to agree about that. In October, board member William Hutchings said the situation involved a “black and white” issue at Randolph Park Elementary School, though he withdrew the suggestion after lunchroom workers vehemently denied it.
-- Some board members have stated specifically that they want principals to be able to step into a lunchroom and clear up a chaotic situation. Almost every time, these board members invoke the need to correct food safety problems as quickly as possible. Yet board members say food safety isn't the issue causing the current controversy.
“We’re really just looking at the overall situation,” said board president Richard Hooks, talking in the cryptic language that has become typical of the lunchroom controversy.
Hooks, himself a former principal, maintains that the only real issue at state is the authority of school principals to run affairs in their own buildings.
“If you look at it, the principal is in charge of everything in the building. They do not have control over the Child Nutrition Program, and that creates difficulties.”
Board member Mary Harrington echoed that sentiment.
“I do not expect principals to hire CNP workers or decide on menus, but I do think they have a role,” she said.
Hooks and Harrington both sounded a little skeptical of Frazier’s idea of inviting state-level officials to get involved. But Hooks insists the invitation “is not like a state takeover of our lunchrooms.”
Frazier, the school superintendent, agrees. She said she plans to send a formal invitation to Perry Fulton, state director of the Child Nutrition Program, to Anniston to meet with the parties involved and clarify the duties of cafeteria directors and principals.
Why a state official?
“I’m trying to bring in some neutral parties, so we can get a neutral party to clarify things,” Frazier said.
She said she doesn’t know when principals and lunchroom leaders will have their sit-down, but it won’t be this year.
“I can guarantee you it won’t be before the Christmas break,” she said.
Or it may never happen at all. When The Star contacted Fulton to ask what he’d be discussing with Anniston officials, he said he couldn’t comment without permission from higher up in the Department of Education. But he did say he had no plans to make a personal visit to Anniston. Asked if he’d be sending a representative, Fulton made it clear that this also was not in the plans, at least not yet.
“I’ll do it if Dr. (State Superintendent Joe) Morton tells me to,” he said.