Posts Tagged Chris Christie

Looking for a free lunch

The scandal was first reported in the Elizabeth, NJ school system. It is not surprising that the problem is widespread.

Gov. calls for firings in wake of cheating scandal in school lunch program.

N.J. school board members and others lied to get free lunch for their kids, state comptroller says

By Star-Ledger Staff Newark Star Ledger nj.com
on July 18, 2013 at 6:15 AM, updated July 18, 2013 at 7:49 AM
By Ted Sherman and Christopher Baxter/The Star-Ledger

http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2013/07/gov_calls_for_firings_and_prosecution_in_wake_of_cheating_scandal_in_school_lunch_program.html#incart_m-rpt-1

TRENTON — A school lunch in Pleasantville costs $2.25.

Apparently, even that was too much for some members of the city’s board of education.

Three of the 12 board members in the Atlantic County district who served over the past three years misstated their income to qualify for free lunch for their kids. One also failed to report any of her salary as a substitute teacher.

Asked why, she told investigators she was not the one receiving the free meal.

“It is none of their damn business” how much money she made, she said.

It was not an isolated case. An investigation by the state comptroller, released Wednesday, found “widespread fraud” in New Jersey’s school lunch program that’s meant to serve needy families.

The investigation found more than 100 people on public payrolls, or their family members, allegedly lied about their income so their kids could eat in school for free. Among those caught cheating were 40 school district employees and six school board members in Pleasantville, Newark and Paterson.

Officials said the investigation was sparked by a series of stories two years ago by The Star-Ledger into similar lunch program abuses at the Elizabeth Board of Education.

“Our investigations division ultimately uncovered false information on applications submitted by school board members, teachers, other school employees as well as state, county and local employees,” state Comptroller Matthew Boxer said. “What we found are people who work for the government, lying to the government about how much the government is paying them — all to benefit from a program that is designed to help those in need.”

The total amount of under-reported income was $13 million, the investigation found.

Boxer said all of those identified in the investigation were being referred for criminal prosecution to the state Attorney General’s office. The report did not identify any of the people by name.

A spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie said every public employee who lied about their income in order to get a free lunch “should be fired and prosecuted.”

The National School Lunch Program offers state and federal subsidies to provide free or greatly reduced-cost breakfast and lunch to children of families who meet strict income-eligibility requirements.

This past school year, more than 653,000 students in New Jersey received free or reduced-cost meals, state officials said. The federal government provided $212 million to help fund the program, which is administered by the state Department of Agriculture. The New Jersey funneled another $5.5 million in support.

While the cost of the cafeteria lunches are not great, abuses in the program carry serious fiscal consequences for school districts, critics say. School funding formulas in New Jersey are based in part on the number of children getting free lunches. The more kids in a district that are deemed at the poverty level, the more money that may be allocated to a school. Officials said that creates a powerful disincentive for districts to cull out ineligible applicants.

The governor said Wednesday he will urge the Legislature to rethink the way New Jersey does school funding because “a large portion of it is based on numbers that are clearly fraudulent,” hurting municipalities that don’t cheat.
“What kind of system are we setting up here?” Christie asked. “A system to induce people to lie and cheat in order to get their fair share of school funding? It doesn’t seem to make sense.”

But the Education Law Center said the program, while not a perfect indicator of student poverty, remains the most accurate measure available. The advocacy group said it would strongly oppose any effort to uncouple the National School Lunch Program from New Jersey’s current school funding formula.

Boxer said the problem is that there is scant auditing, with a vast majority of free lunch applications never reviewed for accuracy.
“We took on this project because we were concerned about the ability of public employees to use their knowledge of the workings of the free lunch program to improperly obtain benefits,” Boxer said. “Those who know the rules of the program have a greater opportunity to submit a fraudulent application and avoid any scrutiny.”

Boxer said the investigation grew out of the arrest two years ago of Elizabeth school board President Marie L. Munn, who was indicted after The Star-Ledger reported her kids were getting subsidized meals despite a family income far exceeding federal eligibility limits.

Munn has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go to trial in the fall.

In April, another Elizabeth board member and two attorneys for the district were also charged as part of the same continuing investigation by the state Attorney General, accused of covering up additional fraudulent applications for free lunches after those records were subpoenaed by the state.

In the wake of the initial arrests, the Elizabeth board said it now cross-checks payroll information against the applications of all employees seeking free or low-cost meals for their children.

“The Elizabeth school district has made significant efforts to make sure that what happened in 2011 does not happen again,” said Tony Monteiro, the school board president.

Boxer’s office, which did not dig further into Elizabeth, said it took an in-depth look at 15 other districts which received more than $1 million in reimbursement for school lunches. They included: Bayonne, Egg Harbor Township, Essex County Vocational Technical Schools, Linden, Long Branch, Millville, Newark, Paterson, Pemberton, Pennsauken, Pleasantville, Toms River, Trenton, Union City and Winslow Township. The comptroller found problems with applications in all but Egg Harbor.

In a 23-page report, the comptroller’s office concluded “fraud in the school lunch program is widespread and the vast majority of applications never receive a proper review.”

A member of the Newark Board of Education, for example, under-reported her household income by an average $22,300 a year, telling investigators a school secretary told her it did not matter if she listed her net or gross income. She also did not report the child support payments she had received some years.

The Pleasantville board member who had not reported her income as a substitute teacher also failed to file state income tax returns. Another member of the Pleasantville board, a county employee, left off $67,000 in income, saying she did not look at her pay stubs or those of her husband, the investigation found.

Some of the improper reporting uncovered by the comptroller’s office appeared to result from a misunderstanding of the rules, the report said. Many of those flagged said they reported their net income instead of gross income, as required by the application form. Others failed to list the income of a spouse or other members of their household, according to the report.

But the investigation also found examples of school districts failing to remove ineligible applicants, even after they submitted documents that showed they did not qualify for the program.

Neither Pleasantville’s superintendent nor the president of the board of education returned calls for comment. A spokesman for the Paterson school district referred all questions to Boxer’s office. Newark officials also had no comment.

Star-Ledger staff writer MaryAnn Spoto contributed to this report.

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