CANAAN — An inquiry has concluded that a vendor was right to fire lunch lady Bonnie Kimball for giving students free food and drinks.
In March, Mascoma Valley Regional School District Superintendent Amanda Isabelle said Cafe Food Services should rehire Kimball with back pay or risk losing its $500,000 food service contract.
But an independent probe has now come to a different conclusion, which Isabelle announced Tuesday on Facebook. In a summary, Isabelle said it was clear Cafe Food Services acted appropriately. She also announced a series of steps aimed at giving the district more real-time information about the status of student accounts at the cafeteria.
“This review was comprehensive, and provides the facts and answers the school community has called for and deserves, regarding this chapter in the history of our school district,” Isabelle said. “I am confident moving forward that Mascoma will be more proactive in sharing the many, many positive programs we have in place to support our students and community, and in strengthening communication among all stakeholders in our schools.”
Isabelle said “national and international headlines” had painted a false narrative for the firing of Kimball, in particular that she was fired for feeding hungry children in need.
“Kimball’s employment was entirely under the purview of Cafe Food Services, not the district, and it is a school policy that all children are given lunches, regardless of their financial means to pay for that meal,” Isabelle said in her statement. “The district sought to learn what, if anything, could have been done to prevent this situation from escalating the way it did in recent months.”
Kimball was properly fired for giving away free food to multiple students over several months, Isabelle said.
“This incident greatly impacted our community, and it is a relief to have completed this review and share this report with all of the stakeholders who were impacted,” she said. “The overall well-being and health of our students is of the greatest importance at Mascoma Valley Regional School District, and we will continue working to improve our policies and communication to reflect that dedication to our community moving forward.”
One policy change includes doing more work with parents to maintain a positive financial balance on students’ food accounts.
While it was initially believed that Kimball was fired for providing a 17-year-old with $8 of food he couldn’t pay for, that story soon began to fall apart as Kimball had been giving away food for months and lying about it, Cafe Food Service officials said.
The inquiry concluded Cafe Food Services had adhered to the school district policy that all students are provided a lunch regardless of ability to pay, Isabelle said.
The extra a la carte items, however, are not included in the lunch program, and must be paid for either in cash, or through the student’s lunch charge account, she said.
During a brief telephone interview Wednesday, Kimball declined to respond specifically to Isabelle’s findings.
“I would like to start by saying I have no comment,” she said. “I don’t have a comment for anyone at this time. I know the truth. I know what happened.”
Kimball forwarded the Union Leader the report of another Cafe Food Services staffer, Jennifer Abrahamson, who in November 2016 said she, Abrahamson, had been fired for not pulling a food tray from a student who hadn’t been able to pay for the meal.
“I tried to protect the kids and I got fired for it,” wrote Abrahamson, who was school lunch director at Indian River Middle School in Canaan when she was dismissed.
Others interviewed at the time by the Union Leader alleged Kimball conspired with a student she was feeding to hide social media messages that contradicted her public account of events.
With the vendor initially under pressure from the district, Kimball was offered her job back, but she refused to return.
“They all just want me to get the press off their backs,” she told the Union Leader.
As Kimball’s story was called into question, Isabelle reversed course, condoned the firing and called for the independent administrative review.