State Senator Steve Oroho, Assemblywoman Alison McHose and Assemblyman Gary Chiusano, all R-24, said that much more than a meal is involved in the investigation of Elizabeth school district employees who reportedly improperly enrolled their children in the subsidized free lunch program.
In addition to the recent suspension of a school principal and the head of custodians, the Star Ledger reported on Wednesday that New Jersey’s Department of Agriculture indicated it was anticipating a subpoena from the Attorney General’s office regarding the students participating in the free lunch program in Elizabeth. That news was confirmed by the paper on Thursday.
“No one is suggesting that students who properly qualify for the free lunch program should not participate,” said Chiusano. “As this investigation unfolds, we need to keep in mind this issue involves not only tax dollars that fund the lunch program, but also how much state and federal aid a district receives.
“One component used in calculating the amount of aid a school district receives is the percentage of free lunch participants. We could be scratching the surface on the number of unqualified students enrolled in the program which inflates the funding the district receives,” explained Chiusano. “It costs taxpayers roughly $5,200 in additional aid for each student who participates in the lunch program. If one-third of the students in Elizabeth are improperly enrolled, it costs taxpayers over $25 million.”
Chiusano was referencing a report issued by the State Auditor in June which sampled 10 school districts which 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.
McHose said she was concerned about the comments of a spokesman for the Elizabeth school district who said ‘the district’s responsibilities are limited to compiling the data and providing it to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.’
“Asking a school district with nearly 18, 000 participants in this program to go beyond the minimum requirement is not unreasonable,” said McHose. “Three percent of a school’s applications are supposed to be verified. Taxpayers are entitled to know that a district that received $7.6 million in aid for the lunch program last year and will receive over $350 million in school aid this year is going beyond the minimum requirement.”
“This issue is about fairness and accountability,” stated Oroho. “School districts that are playing by the rules should not be at a disadvantage, nor should taxpayers. There should be no ‘passing the buck’ in Elizabeth or any other school system.”