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LA JOYA – After failing two audits of the school district's free lunch and breakfast programs over the past year, La Joya Independent School District received good news last week. The program's federal funding will be restored due to a third audit showing the previous problems of over counting had been resolved.

A November 2011 audit by the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) showed the district had reported over 4,600 excess meals. A follow-up audit last March revealed another 3,200 excess meals were reported served by the district. This promoted the TDA to suspend funding of the La Joya ISD's free meals program. The district continued to serve the children's meals, costing the district an estimated $1.5 million per month.

Following the announcement last Thursday by the TDA, the district is now expected to be reimbursed $12 million to $15 million for the meals served during the suspension period.

School district officials held a press conference last Thursday, soon after they received the official news about the third audit. This time no discrepancies were found by state auditors.

"There were no findings," said Alfredo Vela, superintendent of business and finance, during the press conference.

The auditor told the district just hours before the press conference that they had passed their December audit.

"We were able to make necessary adjustments to get the job done," said Vela.

Superintendent Alda T. Benavides said, "Everything we go through makes us better, and it's the truth." By making the necessary changes at the problem schools to ensure a good audit, the district has made changes district-wide to make sure the event doesn't happen in the future.

The district made changes to staff, hired extra personnel to help with counting and accountability, had all equipment checked, and made sure employees knew how to use the programs to report food usage.

You do whatever you have to do to right the situation, said Benavides. All the schools need to be doing the same thing.

"It needs to become a way of life," she said.

"We have had a rough three months," she continued, "and I thank everyone that got involved in making the changes needed to pass this audit."

One of the problems was understanding the new nutritional guidelines. So education was a key in their changes, said Benavides. The parents even had to be educated on the guidelines to let them know why their children were getting less food, or this type of food and not something else.

School Board President J.J. Peña said, "The district had obstacles to overcome and the district must learn from those obstacles." That sentiment should not be only for the child and nutrition department, but all departments, continued Peña. This was a trickle down effect. "What goes on at the top, can trickle all the way down to affect the students."

Oscar Salinas, board member, said, "Now the district needs to continue to work with the same vision, just as they did while they were being highly monitored." He said he wanted to make sure parents knew they could be secure with knowing their children will receive their free lunch.

Chuy Avendaño, board member, said through the changes that have been made, the district can avoid future problems.

All board members agreed that now accountability for their meal program is strong and they can concentrate on other things.

"Now we can tell the parents to relax," he said. "This is the best gift we can get before Christmas.

It was our main focus when coming onto the board," said Salinas. "Now we start again with hard work and accountability."

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