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In June 2000, the Mayor Anthony A. Williams administration signed up Michele Tingling-Clemmons to feed the children.
In more bureaucratic terms, Tingling-Clemmons assumed the title of state agency director of the $30 million Special Nutrition and Commodities Distribution Program, or SNAC. Trivial-sounding acronym notwithstanding, SNAC has a weighty mandate: to provide needy children with two nourishing meals a day.
In almost two years on the job, Tingling-Clemmons took an underachieving program and made it work. The most impressive turnaround came in SNAC’s summer feeding program, which last year served more than 20,000 D.C. kids each weekday. In previous years, SNAC had struggled with staffing and coordinating feeding sites. The program had also been audited by the D.C. Inspector General and penalized for improper utilization of funds.
“It was an exceptional effort, particularly given the fact that this was an organization very much in transition,” said C. Vannessa Spinner, head of D.C.’s State Education Office, in a public hearing last January.
That evaluation appears to have changed in recent months.
On Tuesday, Spinner fired Tingling-Clemmons. The move alarmed children’s advocates who were wowed by her transformation of the agency. “Her leaving is devastating, just truly devastating,” says Reuben Gist, director of advocacy and community outreach for the Capital Area Food Bank. “We are approximately two months from the beginning of the summer food-service program. We’re concerned this puts the program in jeopardy.”
If Gist’s prediction proves correct, SNAC’s collapse will take on the trappings of a classic D.C. story, with lots of innocent victims and lots of public officials to share the blame. And it will demonstrate that a D.C. government populated by smart technocrats still hasn’t figured out how to organize itself.
When she grasped the reins of SNAC, Tingling-Clemmons had the requisite latitude to revamp the ailing program. She recruited schools and community groups to host feedings and made sure that suppliers delivered edible food on time.
Last year, however, oversight of SNAC transitioned from the D.C. Public Schools to a new monster known as the State Education Office, which was created in 2000 by the D.C. Council. The new office is supposed to handle so-called “state-level” administrative and oversight functions for both public schools and public charter schools. That nebulous domain includes authority over federally funded child-nutrition programs such as SNAC.
No one on the council, it appears, foresaw the turf battle that the new office would prompt. Earlier this year, though, councilmembers got a firsthand look at their work.
At a Jan. 18 public round table of the council’s Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation, Tingling-Clemmons and Spinner shared space at the witness table—and not even the formality of a public meeting was enough to paper over their differences.
“I consider myself a good team member, but there are some concerns with how the transition is going on the part of the special nutrition programs,” Tingling-Clemmons remarked.
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She offered those in attendance a complete menu of “difficulties” she was having with the State Education Office, including differences of opinion over staffing, money, and other crucial resource-allocation issues involved with the special nutrition programs. Tingling-Clemmons claimed that Spinner wanted to divert SNAC staff to other projects—which would violate federal funding guidelines.
“I need to be able to say that to you, I need to be able to say that to my director, and I need to be able to say that to my colleagues without having my job threatened and without having other kinds of harassment being experienced,” Tingling-Clemmons asserted, to the visible uneasiness of councilmembers on the dais. “I want to take this opportunity to state that.”
The SNAC director’s mouthful to the council had the same effect as a mashed-potato-filled outburst memorably launched by one Bluto Blutarsky: It shocked the establishment, upended authority, and catalyzed a major food fight.
Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, who chairs the council committee, offered to mediate the dispute. “If it would help, maybe I could sit down with you all and see if we could work it out,” he told Spinner and Tingling-Clemmons. “There’s a way as professionals to make this work—I have a lot of respect for both of you.”
Yet the Chavous intercession never occurred.
Spinner and Tingling-Clemmons have similar MOs: Both are headstrong, vocal advocates for children. Some even call them divas. And both women have their supporters. Spinner came to the State Education Office via the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., a pet project of Mayor Williams.
Tingling-Clemmons came to the administration via the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a nonprofit based in the District that works toward the eradication of hunger and malnutrition. She receives accolades from many in the nonprofit community for her technical mastery over the complexities of the feeding programs. “The difference is in the substance of responsibilities. Michele knows about SNAC. [Spinner] doesn’t,” says Gist.
The fighting between the two bureaucrats has only intensified in the three months since the hearing. In an April 5 memo, Tingling-Clemmons challenged Spinner’s dominion over SNAC, recalling a meeting in which Spinner allegedly called herself “state agency director” for SNAC. Tingling-Clemmons proceeded to write that Spinner’s representations of her position were “lies.” Tingling-Clemmons copied the two-page letter to members of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Education, as well as to Gregory McCarthy, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff for policy.
“I noted that consistent with your erroneous assertion that you are the State Agency Director, you have required that the title of our agency be changed on the [State Education Office] stationery, and have unilaterally changed my title in the signage on my door,” Tingling-Clemmons continued. “Please be advised that you are not the State Agency Director, and if such a change has taken place, please provide me with documentation to that effect.”
In another April 5 memo, Tingling-Clemmons expressed concern over a SNAC hire made by Spinner without her consultation.
Skirmishes over titles and personnel, of course, are legion in any bureaucracy. The aftermath of l’Affaire SNAC, however, has consequences beyond door plates and business cards: Tingling-Clemmons’ departure has the potential to affect the thousands of needy District youngsters who will soon rely upon SNAC for a hearty meal during its upcoming summer feeding program.
For a good number of D.C. kids, a cardboard lunch tray arrayed with one pizza rectangle, Tater Tots, and a hard-to-open 6-ounce chocolate-milk carton is something to look forward to every day—and the most reliable and nutritious meal they eat.
“I’m really concerned about the impact it’s going to have on the summer food program,” says Crystal Weedall, a senior policy analyst at FRAC. “To not have a capable director is really going to have a huge impact.”
D.C. has the highest state-participation rate for children under 18 in its summer feeding program, according to a July 2001 FRAC report titled Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation. Of the 45,740 District public-school students who devour free or reduced-price lunches during the school year, 20,647—45.1 percent—take advantage of government-sponsored free lunches over the summer, as well.
“D.C. has consistently been ranked No. 1,” explains Weedall. “We’re hopeful that it’s going to be the same this summer.”
That’s now up to Spinner, whose office forwarded all calls on the Tingling-Clemmons matter to State Education Office spokesperson Reggie Sanders. “The [State Education Office] considers the details of her separation confidential and will have no further comment on this matter,” said Sanders in an official written statement.
Tingling-Clemmons has consulted a lawyer to explore her options. “It’s a sad state of affairs when an employee gets dismissed for trying to do the right thing and trying to be the best they can,” she says.
* On a typical Thursday night, D.C.’s hip and beautiful line Okie Street NE for the chance to go clubbing at what’s rumored to be Michael Jordan’s favorite local nightspot: Dream. Those who primped and primed April 11, though, got the unique opportunity to cavort and sip drinks in the club’s fourth-floor VIP room with a different kind of District celebrity: perennial D.C. electoral loser Robert I. Artisst.
Artisst and his Ward 5 neighbors crowded the swank club to celebrate the 45th birthday of their councilmember, Vincent B. Orange Sr. Pulling up to the front door for gratis valet parking, partygoers proceeded upstairs to load their plates with blackened salmon, roast beef, and assorted vegetable dishes at the complementary “lavish” buffet.
Among other notables in the crowd, LL briefly chitchatted with the current Miss Virginia USA, Julie Laipply. “My goal as Miss Virginia is to help people—and that’s not segregated by state boundaries,” she responded when LL asked her positions on Orange’s leadership, trash-transfer stations, and Inspector General Charles C. Maddox’s residency.
Right off New York Avenue NE near the Hecht’s warehouse, Dream sits smack dab in Ward 5’s decaying industrial/commercial corridor. Orange seems eager to shake his turf’s workaday, blue-collar image: As chair of the council’s Committee on Government Operations, the councilmember has cozied up to the city’s minority developers while keeping a high profile as the watchdog of the city’s watchdog, Maddox.
It seems to have paid off. Orange says that the opulent affair was paid for by the Committee to Re-elect Vincent Orange.
“When I came into office four years ago, the first street we cleaned up was Okie Street,” Orange told the assembled crowd, right before the ceremonial singing of “Happy Birthday.” “Okie Street was so bad we had to call in the National Guard.”
* On April 15, the tax-filing deadline, D.C.’s soldiers of symbolism showed up for a statehood rally of sorts: D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, and D.C. Shadow Senator Paul Strauss joined Mayor Williams and At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson at Farragut Square to burn federal 1040s in protest of D.C.’s lack of voting rights in Congress.
“Last year, I felt kind of bad, because all I could burn was my extension,” quipped Strauss, who proceeded to rattle off 11 federal tax forms that he later admitted he would be mailing in a few hours.
Norton energized the crowd with her usual fiery oratory, which hasn’t gotten D.C. even a commemorative quarter yet.
Then elected officials led citizens over to a pristine metal trash can, where they threw blank 1040 forms into a smoldering fire. “The nation’s capital needs real government, not student government,” Williams had told the crowd moments earlier. CP
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