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Verify free lunches? Not so fast

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools cannot legally audit applications for lunch subsidies to low-income families, a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture told district officials this week.

The written ruling comes as some board members say there's evidence of widespread fraud, while others accuse those members of scapegoating low-income families.

At stake is $34million a year the federal government channels through CMS to buy lunches for low-income students. Students qualify if they receive public assistance, such as welfare and food stamps, or if their parents report income lower than the limits for aid. For instance, a family of four earning up to $27,560 a year qualifies for free school lunches; up to $39,220, the price is reduced from $2 to 40 cents.

The federal government requires districts to check 3 percent of the applications that are very close to the income cutoff. Last year, CMS checked about 700 applications; about 60 percent could not be verified, including some in which parents did not respond to the request to document income.

Board members Trent Merchant, Kaye McGarry and Larry Gauvreau have asked Superintendent Peter Gorman to check a larger sample of applications. Gorman said he's willing, but he was getting conflicting opinions from federal and state officials.

Last month, Ben Matthews with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction told CMS he'd been told to withhold the federal lunch money if CMS did a broader audit.

This week CMS attorney Regina Bartholomew forwarded school board members a written opinion from USDA lawyer Ronald Hill saying districts can check additional applications only if they have reason to doubt the accuracy of an individual family's report.

Bartholomew said that, in light of the ruling, she cannot advise the board or Gorman to check more randomly selected applications: “To do so would violate the law.”

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