Lunch-program scrutiny includes call for better data

A second round of talks about free lunches Tuesday brought the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board no clarity about how many families might be cheating and whether the board is making smart spending decisions.

The only certainty: Heated discussion will continue, starting with a proposal by board member Trent Merchant to audit a random sample of applications. His suggestion came after administrators said they don't know how widespread fraud and errors are.

“We're going on gut feeling and emotion and political ideology,” Merchant said, “and it's not going to change unless we get better data.”

Controversy about the lunch program has smoldered for years, largely because school poverty levels based on lunch aid are so much higher than other measures. CMS uses those levels to decide which schools get extra teachers and supplies.

Superintendent Peter Gorman said even if the numbers are flawed, they're such a good predictor of weak academic performance that it makes sense to use them.

For years, close to half of CMS students have gotten lunch subsidies, while only about one in eight Mecklenburg children lives in a family considered poor under federal guidelines.

That's at least partly because the income threshold for lunch aid is higher than the federal poverty standard – $39,220 for a family of four vs. $21,200.

But others say the district allows parents to claim aid they're not entitled to. “I don't believe for a second that there's not fraud in these programs,” board member Larry Gauvreau said.

Last year 43 percent of the 58,834 CMS students who got lunch subsidies automatically qualified because their families get food stamps or other public aid. The rest were signed up because their parents reported income low enough to qualify.

The district started sending out 2008-09 applications this month. “We're processing more applications than ever,” said Amy Harkey, assistant lunch program director.

Board member Vilma Leake called the questions about fraud a “witch hunt,” that stigmatizes low-income families, while Tom Tate called them misguided: “I'm tired of this board talking about fraud in this program when we need to be talking about educating these kids.”

CMS officials say they're following rules set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which pumped $22 million into the district's lunch program last year. Based on those rules, the district checked just over 700 applications that were close to the income cutoff and considered prone to error. More than 60 percent could not be verified as eligible.

Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain noted Tuesday that some families have income that fluctuates and can be hard to document.