CMS decides to forgo lunches audit

It seemed like a simple proposition: Settle questions about how many Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools families cheat on free-lunch applications by auditing a random sample.

But with federal and state officials threatening to take away $34 million in federal lunch subsidies if the district pursues that path, local leaders say they're stymied.

Meanwhile, the uncertainty continues to fuel rhetoric about cover-ups and witch hunts. It's exactly the kind of argument based on “gut feeling and emotion and political ideology” that school board member Trent Merchant says he was trying to head off with the proposed audit.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which pays for lunches for low-income kids, requires school districts to check 3 percent of the applications considered most prone to error: Those where families report a yearly income within $100 of the cutoff for aid.

A family of four earning up to $27,560 a year qualifies for free school lunches; up to $39,220 the lunch price is reduced from $2 to 40 cents.

Last year the district required just over 700 families to document their income. Sixty percent of those couldn't be verified, including some where parents didn't respond to the request.

Officials such as school board member Larry Gauvreau and county commissioner Bill James say that's proof that CMS's lunch program is riddled with fraud. Board member Vilma Leake has accused them of trying to stigmatize low-income families. CMS officials say there's no way to know whether the sample of borderline applications indicates that those problems extend to the almost 59,000 students who got lunch subsidies last year.

The question is not just whether better-off families are claiming benefits they're not entitled to. CMS uses poverty levels based on lunch aid to decide which schools get extra teachers and supplies.

In August, Merchant asked Superintendent Peter Gorman to do a random sample. Gorman and his staff looked into it and got contradictory answers from federal law, federal regulations and the USDA offices in Washington and Atlanta, Gorman said this week.

A 2006 USDA memo says school districts “may do no more” than the checks prescribed by the regulations – except to “verify questionable applications (for cause).” Gorman said he's seeking a ruling on whether that applies only to individuals or whether a 60 percent rate of ineligible applications among the target sample is cause to question the whole program.

Just hours before Tuesday's school board meeting, a state official who administers the lunch money called Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain to warn him he's been directed to withhold all CMS lunch aid if the district veers from the federal instructions.

Merchant withdrew his proposal, but said he won't vote for further budgets based on shaky data. “My personal intent is not to make it so a hungry child doesn't get anything to eat,” he said.

Gauvreau moved to do the audit regardless of what federal and state officials say, and accused Gorman of trying to hide fraud in the program. That move failed 7-2, with Kaye McGarry joining Gauvreau.

Gorman said Wednesday he's waiting for a written ruling from the USDA to determine his next steps. Given the option, he said, he'd like to audit a random sample.

Meanwhile, CMS is working with a consultant paid by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to figure out whether there's a better way to figure out which schools should get extra aid for disadvantaged kids.