By Dari Kotzker
The national school lunch program is meant to help those in need, but a state audit discovered alleged fraud and lying among some New Jersey school district employees and board members. State Comptroller Matthew Boxer’s investigative report looked at 15 school districts over a three-year period, and found dozens of public employees under reported their income by $13 million dollars to qualify for the program themselves. One hundred nine people, including 83 public employees, are being referred to the Division of Criminal Justice for prosecution.
“What we learned in this investigation is that because of the way this program is structured, there is minimal oversight, resulting in people frequently lying on program applications about income amounts,” Boxer said. “Many said they thought they were supposed to report net income, as opposed to the gross income. Others failed to list the income of their spouse or all of their own income.”
The lunch program offers state and federal reimbursement to provide free or reduced-cost school lunches to families that meet the eligibility requirements. And there’s a lot at stake. School funding formulas are based, in part, on the number of children getting free lunch. The more kids in a district deemed at the poverty level, the more money that may be allocated to a school. Officials say that’s why districts are tempted to increase the number of applications.
“What we know is that there are pervasive incentives that exist, and we know that the right amount of attention was not being paid to making sure that fraud was being avoided,” Boxer said. “We were concerned about the ability of public employees to use their knowledge of the specific workings of the program and how it’s structured to obtain benefits for which they do not qualify.”
Bayonne School District had seven school district employees and three public employees filing inaccurate applications. The Assistant Superintendent Leo Smith says, “It’s deplorable that for the cost of a cup of coffee that someone would lose their livelihood.”
Under federal guidelines, only 3 percent of approved applications are subject to review by school districts. After the review, about 63 percent of those are usually eliminated or decreased from the benefit.
Long Branch School District was part of the report. Superintendent Michael Salvatore said, “The Office of the Comptroller did an excellent job. Hopefully this will lead to legislation to allow districts to have the ability to do additional audits beyond the 3 percent.”
And Gov. Chris Christie’s response? “I feel like an idiot. I’m apparently the only person not getting free school lunches. It’s absurd and it’s obscene,” he said.
Boxer says if any of the 109 people are convicted, these types of crimes generally involve prison terms of several years. The report also makes recommendations to help improve the oversight process.