In Baltimore schools, the cost of doing business can often be found on a plate — eggs Benedict or a French-toast buffet for breakfast, crab cakes or beef Wellington for lunch, and chocolate-covered strawberries for dessert.
The school district racked up $1 million in food bills between 2010 and 2012, according to catering charges on administrative accounts at central headquarters.
The records show a range of spending and menus, from $9.24 for cookies and juice for the CEO's office to a $7,170 professional development lunch for 600 educators that featured a menu of chicken cacciatore, baked ziti and beef brisket barbecue. Orders were for small-scale staff meetings, large-scale professional development, and parent and community events.
With the money spent over two years, a Baltimore Sun analysis found, the district could have bought a full-priced cafeteria lunch for its poorest students — 66,659 students qualified for free lunch this past school year — for a week.
School officials defended the expenditures, saying the food was served at community and parent engagement events and made workdays more efficient for staff who could work through lunch or dinner.
"This is not food that a bunch of central administrators are eating," said Victor De La Paz, the system's chief financial officer. "This is food to engage people in the work. The activity is constant."
The Sun reviewed more than 1,350 food invoices, obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request, from 35 central administrative offices between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2012.
De La Paz said many offices pay for their meals with grants — the district estimated that $416,319 of the food was paid for with grants — that explicitly allow for the food purchases and thus don't require tapping into operating budgets.
"The grant funds allow us to bring more people together," he said.
Federal auditors questioned the school system earlier this year for its use of grant funds on food and parent engagement activities.
De La Paz said the school system, which has 12,000 employees, is looking to rein in those expenses while also preserving its philosophy that gives autonomy to office heads about how they spend their budgets.
Watchdog groups said the district should be mindful of the public's perception.
"Creative ideas and creative ways of building community and engagement are important. They just have to be gauged against the cost efficiencies, accountability and what the public expects," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.
She also said the considerable use of grant funding raises questions about accountability.
"It just shows when you try to move a lot of money into a big, clunky system, the oversight you need to have," she said. "To me, you're at a higher standard because you're taking public funds."
De La Paz pointed out that the district's spending on food declined from $601,112 in fiscal year 2011 to $458,710 in fiscal year 2012. He attributed the decrease to less spending on food for professional development and a decline in grant funds.
Through May of the current fiscal year — which ends Sunday — the district spent $469,785. Officials said that $208,834 of those food orders were paid for with grants.
De La Paz said the system's analysis after The Sun's request — which entailed asking departments to provide supporting documentation for their catered events — shows that the orders were for a total of 68,000 meals over the two-year period, for an average of $15.50 per meal.
However, the purchase orders show that in some cases, the price per person could be more than $30. Examples include a $1,534 meeting for 50 parents at which crab-stuffed mushrooms and salmon topped with white-wine butter sauce were served, and a $1,298 meal ordered for 35 administrators that featured grilled salmon, saffron rice and beef Wellington.
In the same timeframe, fiscal years 2011 and 2012, Baltimore County charged a total of $303,741 worth of purchase orders to administrative accounts. Officials said the standard fare is sandwiches and pasta salad, though there is some deviation for those with dietary restrictions.