CMS board to revisit free lunches

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board will revisit the question of whether false reporting of family income skews the way the district spends millions of dollars.

Tuesday's meeting will be the second time this month board members have raised questions about how families qualify for lunch subsidies. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, like districts across the country, uses the percent who qualify as a measure of school poverty. That, in turn, shapes everything from teacher assignments to federal aid to penalties for low test scores imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act.

Board member Trent Merchant says the report at the Aug. 12 meeting didn't fully assure him that those spending decisions are based on solid data.

“I don't want to guess, and that's what we're doing now,” said Merchant, who requested a follow-up discussion for Tuesday. “Every major funding decision we make is based on free and reduced lunch. If those numbers aren't accurate, we're not being prudent in the way we allocate hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Last year almost 60,000 of CMS's 133,000 students got lunch subsidies; at some schools more than 90 percent qualified. The district basically uses an honor system, relying on parent reports of family income. Following federal guidelines, CMS audited 704 applications last year and found that more than 60 percent of those did not qualify for the benefits they were getting.

Board member Ken Gjertsen asked for the first report after the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation cited such results as signs of widespread lunch-program fraud in CMS and other N.C. districts.

Merchant, who talked at that meeting about how easy it would be to cheat, requested the follow-up, saying he left with unclear and contradictory information.

The meeting starts at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.; it will be broadcast live on CMS-TV Cable 3.