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CPS: 12 principals and assistants abused free-lunch program

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Updated: August 15, 2012 6:05AM

Twenty-six Chicago Public School employees are accused of lying on federal school lunch forms, allowing their total of 45 children to receive free or reduced-price lunches at 40 schools across the district, officials said Friday.

As part of the widespread probe by Schools Inspector General James Sullivan, 12 principals or assistant principals were removed from their schools Friday and now face termination hearings, authorities said.

The 12 include one couple — a principal married to an assistant principal — with a combined income of more than $230,000, who also are accused of living in the suburbs in violation of the district’s city residency policy while sending their children for free to Chicago public schools, Sullivan said.

The probe even swept into higher ranks, with a central office education “deputy” and a “deputy network chief” accused of lying on federal lunch forms for their own kids when they were principals, Sullivan said.

In a news release, Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said Sullivan’s investigation had uncovered “continuing fraud” and “we will not stand for any lapse in ethical judgment by our school leaders….These actions should send a clear message to anyone who would even consider trying to game the system.”

Federal lunch forms can not only save the bearer the $2.25 to $2.50 cost of a CPS lunch, but every year they trigger a windfall of “hundreds of millions of dollars” for CPS — from reimbursements for lunches, to federal poverty dollars for schools, to state funding, Sullivan noted.

Yet there is little oversight, Sullivan said. A “very small sample” must be audited every year, but otherwise, a school clerk enters the information on the form into a computer and is not allowed to question parents about it, Sullivan said. Ultimately, Sullivan said, principals are responsible for the veracity of the forms but they might not even see them.

Of the 26 current or former employees accused of lying on lunch forms over the last four school years, only four had children in the schools where they worked, Sullivan said. Two suspects admitted “they falsified the forms so the schools their children attended would receive more funding,” he said.

One principal even told investigators that when he was a CPS teacher, his principal coached him on how to falsely fill out a federal lunch form for his children, Sullivan said.

Although the 26 employees facing discipline are all accused of lying on behalf of their own children, their actions raise additional serious questions, Sullivan said. “If they are willing to lie on their forms, are they encouraging parents to do the same? Are they accepting forms that they know are falsified?” Sullivan asked.

The CPS employees include six principals; one resident principal; 13 assistant principals; one school counselor; and one former guidance counselor assistant who is the ex-wife of an accused assistant principal. Also snared are one substitute teacher; one clerk; a central office “deputy” who works “on the education side,” and a deputy network chief, Sullivan said.

The IG said he also referred the case to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federal school lunch program, and that agency has already begun interviewing suspects in the case.

Friday’s revelations bring to 55 the number of CPS employees the Inspector General’s Office has accused of lying on school lunch forms in the last four years.

Students in a family of four qualified for a free lunch if their family income was less than $29,055 this past school year, and a reduced-price lunch if their family income was below $41,348.

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