News: CJ Exclusives

Food Fight Erupts in Char-Meck Schools

School board set to vote Oct. 14 on school lunch cheat

Board of Education members in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are in a political tug of war over whether to conduct a comprehensive audit of the district’s free and reduced-lunch program after a verification review found two-thirds of students ineligible to participate.

In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stepped into the fray by threatening to cut off CMS’ $34 million school lunch subsidy if it proceeds with the audit. But the school board still has scheduled a vote on the issue at its meeting Oct. 14, and at least one member plans to keep pushing for a thorough review of the program.

“The school board really doesn’t want to do anything on this. They’re going to drag their feet hoping it goes away,” said CMS school board member Larry Gauvreau, who has spoken in favor of an audit during the board’s last four meetings and has threatened to take the issue up with the U.S. Department of Justice.

After Carolina Journal reported on school lunch fraud in July, school board member Ken Gjertsen raised the issue at a meeting Aug. 12. He questioned the reliability of the free and reduced-lunch number, which is used in CMS as a gauge for resource allocation. That touched off a firestorm of debate among school board members. Some say an audit is necessary to weed out cheating in the program and others call it a “witch-hunt” aimed at poor families.

“Poor people don’t know how to steal from the federal government. They’re not smart enough,” said school board member Vilma Leake, an opponent of the school lunch audit, when Gjertsen brought up the topic.

Leake said she was “appalled” that the school board would talk about people in CMS committing fraud. “This is a wonderful district,” she said. “All across this country, people want to do what we’re doing in trying to educate our children.”

Tom Tate, another school board member opposed to a comprehensive review, said the district should focus on education, not fraud. “I’m tired, really, of the board talking about fraud in this program when we need to be talking about educating these kids,” he said.

The controversy is based on a free and reduced-lunch verification summary from last school year. Federal law requires local school nutrition officials to verify the income eligibility of 3 percent 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.

The latest summary for CMS shows that 68 percent of households verified either did not respond to the request or sent income evidence that reduced or repealed benefits. The results were similar for the 2006-07 school year: Sixty percent of applicants had their benefits reduced or revoked because of nonresponse or failure to provide proof of income.

Local and state school officials say the percentage does not suggest widespread fraud since the sample is targeted and not random. But some school board members in CMS said the high numbers cast doubt on the district’s practice of using free and reduced lunch as an indicator of poverty.

At the school board’s meeting Aug. 26, member Trent Merchant suggested a motion that would require a random audit of the school lunch participants. The goal was to shed some light on the reliability of using the program as a basis for resource allocation.

“Let’s just get the information. Quit arguing about this silly stuff,” Merchant said.

The district is “potentially misallocating millions of dollars” by using the free and reduced-lunch percentage, said school board member Kaye McGarry at the same meeting. “If that isn’t a responsibility to our taxpayers, I don’t know what is,” she said.

But the idea of an expanded verification lost steam at the school board’s next meeting in September. CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman told the board that the USDA had directed the state Department of Public Instruction to withhold the district’s child nutrition subsidy if it conducted a more extensive audit. CMS’ school lunch subsidy last year was $34 million.

That prompted Merchant to withdraw the motion, but Gauvreau countered by introducing an audit motion of his own. “There are thousands of people who probably shouldn’t be in that program. We know that. Everybody up here knows that,” he said.

The idea failed, 7-2, with Gauvreau and McGarry the only members voting in favor. The board is set to consider another motion Oct. 14 that would authorize an audit.

Amid the wrangling among school board members, CMS staff has sought a written order from the USDA on the permissibility of a random audit. In a letter dated Sept. 30, USDA Assistant General Counsel Ronald Hill responded to the request by saying that the sample size is “statutorily mandated rather than left to the discretion of a local education agency.”

Further verification is not prohibited “when school officials have sufficient knowledge of a family’s circumstances” to suspect cheating, Hill said. “Verification with respect to such applications would necessarily have to be based on a case-specific determination that such activity is warranted,” he said. “A general ‘good cause’ determination with respect to a group or category of applications would constitute an impermissible extension of the sample size limitation established by the statute.”

Despite the warning from the USDA, Gauvreau said that he plans to continue pushing for a more-thorough audit, even if the school board votes down the motion Oct. 14. “First you use sugar, then vinegar, and if that doesn’t work, a baseball bat,” he said.

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.