In response to Thursday’s news report regarding the indictment of Elizabeth School Board President Marie Munn on charges of theft by deception and tampering with public records or information related to the free lunch program, State Senator Steve Oroho, Assemblywoman Alison McHose and Assemblyman Gary Chiusano, all R-Sussex, Warren and Morris, said much more is involved in this issue than allegations of fraud in the state’s free lunch program.
A State Auditor report issued in June that sampled 10 school districts indicated that state aid is increased between $4,700 and $5,700 for each student enrolled in the lunch program. The audit also found that 37 percent of students in the program were ineligible.
“Ms. Munn and the two others whose cases are pending have potentially played a part in denying students in other parts of the state educational aid opportunities,” said Oroho. “That part of the story is just as important as the deceit involved in the application process. Taxpayers across the state should be outraged at the sordid behavior exhibited by a school board president.”
Cases against Angela Lucio the ex-wife of school principal Carlos Lucio, and Peter Abitanto, husband of Marlene Abitanto, the district’s supervisor of custodians, are still pending. They were arrested with Munn in September 2011. If found guilty, each of the accused faces up to five years in prison.
“We would be foolish to believe this abuse of taxpayer funds is confined to Elizabeth,” stated McHose. “The ramifications of intentionally submitting false information have consequences for all students throughout New Jersey. Deserving students are having more than their lunch money stolen. They may be missing out on other educational resources that unscrupulous people have no compunction about taking, and as a result, property taxpayers are not receiving the relief they need.”
“After scratching beneath the surface on the shame of obtaining a free lunch under false pretenses, we need to recognize this investigation also reveals a component of the school funding formula that is flawed,” said Chiusano. “It should not have taken three arrests for the Elizabeth board to say they will now cross-check payroll information against the applications of all employees seeking free lunches. Students who properly qualify for this program may be denied because of the selfishness of others. I hope that full restitution is required for the aid that was stolen if the accused are found guilty.”
“This is why Steve, Alison, and I continue to fight for fair school funding for children in rural and suburban school districts,” Chiusano added. “We believe that former Governor Corzine’s school funding formula from 2008 needs to be scrapped and replaced with the Fair School Funding Plan (SCR-25/ACR-29 and S-280/A-545).”
McHose noted that the new funding plan they propose “…will eliminate the Supreme Court’s meddling in school funding once and for all and eliminate crazy formulas that can be manipulated by certain officials.”
In response to Mann’s arrest, Gov. Christie announced in March the creation of a task force to study, evaluate and make recommendations about New Jersey’s free lunch program. One of the responsibilities of the task force will be to determine the factors which define an “at-risk” student which is a component in distributing school aid.