By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
An allegedly "missing" $80,000 in the Cave Creek School District's cafeteria budget has sparked an all-out food fight in the northeast Valley over accusations of a government cover-up and of stolen rations of ham and cheese.
Amid the finger-pointing--which by now has enveloped the state Attorney General's Office--nobody knows exactly what happened to the money. Superintendent David Alexander confirms that the school district actually had a $76,000 shortfall in its food-services budget in the 1987-88 and 1988-89 school years. Whether the money was actually missing or mismanaged is in dispute; the state auditor general is currently reviewing the records.
Talk around town of what may or may not have happened to the money, as well as why the subsequent investigation has taken so long, has taken on a life of its own in the Cave Creek-Carefree community, where some residents shoot from the hip and then quickly point out how easily rumors spread.
The rumors are good n' plenty. Among them: ex-employees ran an after-hours catering business in the high school cafeteria; workers pilfered money from the cafeteria; food was traded for television sets and fur coats; cases of food were missing from a district warehouse at Cactus Shadows High School.
No charges have been filed against anybody, but the accusations go around the table and even back to the superintendent, who in turn denies them.
Investigations, or the lack thereof, into the matter have produced biting critiques. Among them: the school administration is covering up and stonewalling the Attorney General's Office; the Attorney General's Office did nothing with the case after initially receiving it; school officials never gave the AG the complete story in the first place. Officials in both the school district and attorney general's offices say the issue has been turned into a hot potato by former district employee Gene Dannatt, an outspoken critic of school officials who is running for the school board.
Dannatt, also a parent in the district, threw the issue back into the fire last month after it had all but slipped from public view. But he's not alone. The area's weekly newspaper, the Foothills Sentinel, has devoted a lot of space to the controversy over the last month, including front-page stories, an editorial supporting Dannatt and letters to the editor.
Now the players involved are rushing to explain their actions--or inactions. "It's 'cover your ass' from all sides," says Linda Ritchie, publisher of the Sentinel.
"You can go into a grocery store and people ask you about it," says Jeri Robertson, the school district's secretary. "It's a hot local issue here."
The mystery began in December 1989, when Bill Greaves, the newly hired administrative services director, discovered "discrepancies" in the food-services budget during the two previous school years. In prior years, he says, the program had run itself--revenue from school lunches and other sales covered the majority of the service's expenses. But even though the student population increased in each of those years, cafeteria revenues didn't go up, Greaves says, and school officials ended up having to appropriate $38,000 from the general budget for two consecutive years to pay some food-service workers' wages.
School-board officials say their legal counsel, aware of similar cases, suggested they take the information on the "discrepancies" to the Attorney General's Office.
Alexander and Greaves say the food-services director at the time, Wilma Gamertsfelder, couldn't explain what happened. She resigned, along with assistant Wanda Williams. Gamertsfelder could not be reached for comment. Williams strongly denies any wrongdoing and says tumult at the time caused them to resign.
Past and present employees tell New Times that they either saw or heard of food being stolen. "I saw whole hams going out of there," says Don Zvara, former head of maintenance for the district.
Another food-service employee says "there were cases of food missing all the time."
In February 1990, district officials met with an attorney general's investigator and provided files he requested. The officials say they were told not to look into the matter further on their own, as it could hamper the AG's investigation.
Greaves and Alexander say they passed on what they knew to the Attorney General's Office. "I've heard everything from a catering service to 'food-walking' [stealing] to overexpenditures," says Alexander. "We didn't sit here and say, 'Here is the rumor list we hear.'"
Steve Tseffos, spokesman for Attorney General Grant Woods, says the investigator looked at the information, didn't see any obvious criminal activity and "shelved it." (Tseffos is quick to point out that the initial look came under the administration of the previous attorney general, Bob Corbin.)
The situation came to a boil last month when Gene Dannatt, a former security aide for the district who now is a candidate for the board, demanded to know where the investigation stood. Dannatt said at the time that he wanted the situation cleared up before the November election because three of the five board members weren't running for reelection. "It is only right that they help clear the table before that time," Dannatt declared at a September board meeting. Dannatt said he had heard allegations of food pilfering while he was an employee of the district.