State Senator Steve Oroho, Assemblywoman Alison McHose and Assemblyman Gary Chiusano, all R-24, said that today’s news report on the arrest of Elizabeth School Board President Marie Munn on charges of third degree theft by deception and third degree tampering with public records or information related to the free lunch program is not terribly surprising given the lack of credible answers she provided when questioned. In addition to Ms. Munn’s arrest, the ex-wife of school principal Carlos Lucio; and Peter Abitanto, husband of Marlene Abitanto, the district’s supervisor of custodians, also face similar charges. If found guilty, each of the accused faces up to five years in prison.
Oroho, McHose and Chiusano said much more is involved in this issue than the fraudulent applications submitted to participate in the 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.
“Taxpayers across the state should be outraged at the sordid behavior exhibited by the school board president,” said Oroho. “Those who were arrested today have played a part in denying students in other parts of the state educational aid opportunities. That part of the story is just as important as the deceit involved in the application process.”
While the free school lunch program provides state and federal reimbursements to students who meet income-eligibility requirements, state and federal officials have stated little auditing is done to determine if those receiving benefits are eligible.
“We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that this practice is only happening in the Elizabeth school district,” said McHose. “Forensic Audits of this program across the state should be conducted. I don’t believe this abuse of taxpayer funds is confined to Elizabeth. Deserving students are having more than 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-162/ACR-197 and S-2924/A-4123).”
“This new funding plan we support will eliminate the Supreme Court’s meddling in school funding once and for all and eliminate crazy formulas that can be manipulated by certain unscrupulous officials,” stated McHose.