The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been slow to respond to requests for clarification on whether a local school district can conduct a comprehensive audit of its free and reduced-lunch program if officials suspect widespread cheating among applicants.
After repeated phone calls and emails from Carolina Journal, the USDA produced a written statement indicating that it would be illegal for a school district to self-audit its child nutrition program. In previous communications, however, a USDA spokesperson said that districts are free to pursue a more detailed verification.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has sought similar clarification after school board members questioned the reliability of the program. A free and reduced-lunch verification summary in CMS last year showed that 68 percent of applicants either did not respond to the income verification request or sent evidence that reduced or repealed benefits.
Verification summaries from three other North Carolina school districts revealed a similar trend, as CJ reported in July. The verifications were taken from a 3 percent pool of applicants considered “error prone,” meaning households whose annual earnings fall within $1,200 of the income eligibility limitation. The program is meant for families at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
In June, USDA Food and Nutrition Service spokesperson Jean Daniel said that she was “not aware” of any challenges from the USDA if a school district chose to conduct a more extensive audit. Contacted again by CJ in August, Daniel reconfirmed her earlier statement.
“If a state wants to go an extra mile to do verification or be more stringent, there is usually not a problem with that,” she said. “The [free and reduced-lunch] law specifies 3 percent. What I’m saying is that a school district can chose to do something in addition to that.”
But after consulting with other USDA officials, Daniel changed her statement to say that federal law limits verification to no more than 3 percent. “If an administering State agency were to observe a violation of this limitation on a performance review, the violation would be noted and corrective action would be required,” she wrote in an email Aug. 26.
Asked to explain why the law limits verifications to 3 percent, Daniel said the question should be addressed to the House and Senate committees that oversee the school lunch program.
CMS has also sought clarification on the USDA’s guidelines for verifying free and reduced-lunch. After CMS school board member Ken Gjertsen raised the question of school lunch cheating in August, school board attorney Regina Bartholomew contacted the USDA to ask for guidance on a comprehensive audit.
At the board’s Sept. 9 meeting, superintendent Peter Gorman said that CMS staff had been working on getting a definite answer “for a couple weeks” without success, although the USDA had threatened to cut off CMS’ $34 million school lunch subsidy if it proceeded with an audit. Two weeks later, Bartholomew said that she had “still not received any word back on the questions that remain outstanding.”
In an email to school board members Sept. 26, Bartholomew described a phone conversation she had with USDA attorney Ronald Hill. He confirmed that districts may only audit 3 percent of applicants and referred further questions to the USDA’s regional office in Atlanta, Bartholomew said. She wrote:
When I asked him whether he could provide to us a written legal opinion regarding his answers, he indicated that he would not. He further stated that his department only had seven (7) lawyers and that there were well over 1,000 school districts and that he could not ask those seven (7) attorneys to write legal opinions every time a school district had a question. I then told him that I was sure our question was not unique and it would probably prove to be helpful to others if we could get those questions concretely answered. He then directed me back to the regional office. I then asked him what purpose did his office serve, if not to provide legal guidance to districts on its own guidelines and policies, similar to what the U.S. Department of Education and other governmental agencies provide. He told me that each government agency was run differently and that I was being crass by asking him that question, and then he became rude. I apologized and told him that it was not my intent to be crass, but that answers to these questions were critical and that a legal opinion would prove helpful.
Four days later, Hill sent a written order to CMS indicating that any audit beyond the 3 percent limit would be illegal, but his initial conversation with Bartholomew angered some elected leaders in Mecklenburg County.
“A governmental bureaucrat at the [USDA] who responds this way to one of the legal counsel to CMS is frankly offensive and disrespectful,” said Bill James, a Mecklenburg County commissioner, at a meeting Oct. 7.
County commissioners voted the same day to write a joint letter with the CMS school board to the state congressional delegation about Hill’s comments and the USDA’s inability to provide a prompt answer.
In mid-October, the CMS school board, for the second time in two months, voted down a motion to conduct an audit of the free and reduced-lunch program. At the same meeting, a majority of members voted to direct Gorman to never conduct an audit of any kind unless the USDA changes its rules.
School lunch law
The federal law governing free and reduced-lunch says that a verification sample size “shall be the lesser of 3,000, or 3 percent of, applications selected at random … ” The law does not address over-verification or penalties if a school district chooses to conduct a more extensive audit.
Elsewhere, however, the USDA interprets the law to disallow a comprehensive verification. The 2008 version of “Eligibility Manual for School Meals,” published by the USDA, says that school districts “must not verify more than or less than the standard sample size … and must not verify all (100% of) applications” (emphasis in original).
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.