Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Free lunch fraud debate still going strong

The perennial debate over fraud in the free- and reduced-priced lunch program flared once again at last night's Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting. Board members have been discussing the issue for years. Back in 2008, they moved towards auditing a random sampling of applications for the federally subsidized lunch program to see how many families were cheating. But they dropped that idea after being told some $34 million in lunch subsidies could be taken away if they didn't follow federal rules stipulating that they "may do no more" than the checks prescribed by Washington. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture tells school systems to check 3 percent of applications filed by families whose yearly income falls within $100 of the cutoff levels for aid).

Anyway, the debate popped up again last night after Cindy Hobbs, head of CMS' child nutrition program, briefed the board on the latest audit results, which showed 236 applications had been checked, and 66 didn't supply verification documents matching the income reported on the application. In another 36 cases, the families didn't respond. Board members Rhonda Lennon, Kaye McGarry and Tim Morgan said if potentially 43 percent of those applications had flaws, there must be thousands of similar cases of ineligible students receiving subsidized lunches. By Morgan's math, about 11,000.

All of which prompted the same round of debate that's been going on for years on the school board. Coach Joe White, Richard McElrath and others suggested there's probably no way to find out how many people are cheating, so just feed the kids. Lennon took offense, stressing that she wasn't suggesting letting kids go hungry. She said her main concern is the fact that CMS uses the free-lunch figures to determine lots of other things, including who gets exemptions from Advanced Placement test fees and sports fees, and figuring how many additional teachers to assign schools. That prompted Superintendent Peter Gorman to repeat what he always says: the free-lunch figures, whatever their flaws, are the best tool CMS has for predicting which students will struggle and need extra help.

Lennon was undeterred.

"You're going to hear way more about this from me," she said. "That's not a threat. That's a promise."

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