Audit: 1 in 7 free lunch students ineligible

State may have spent $19 million on at-risk funding it didn't need to, report says

? Approximately one in seven students getting free lunch in Kansas public schools is ineligible for the program, which costs the state millions of dollars, according to a state audit released Monday.

The meals are paid for by the federal government, but state funding of programs for so-called at-risk students is directly linked to the number of free lunch students in each school district.

But some education officials said the audit’s usefulness was limited because determining eligibility for free lunch isn’t always clear-cut.

“I have some issues and questions,” said Rochelle Chronister, chairwoman of the 2010 Commission, which is studying school finance, including at-risk funding.

Free lunch eligibility

Under the federal program, children from households where the income is 130 percent of the poverty level or less are eligible for free lunches at school. That eligibility income level for a family of four is about $25,000 per year or less.

In addition, children who are in foster care or whose families receive food stamps or other assistance receive free school lunches.

Of the 135,092 students who receive free meals, the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit took a random sample of 500 free lunch students.

The audit found that 17 percent, or 23,000 students, who qualified for the meals because of low-income households actually came from households that earned more than the free lunch limit.

The audit stated that in the current school year, the state may have spent $19 million more on at-risk funding based on the number of students who were ineligible for free lunches. At-risk funds are spent on a number of education programs and don’t necessarily go to help free lunch students.

Discrepancies in numbers

State Rep. Peggy Mast, R-Emporia, said the program looked like an example of “the fox guarding the henhouse.”

State Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, said if the overcount were corrected, more funds could be directed in other areas of education.

The audit also showed that the free lunch figures indicated there were many more low-income children than what U.S. Census Bureau figures showed.

The Census Bureau data said there were 76,000 children at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, while there were more than 130,000 free lunch students.

Close enough?

But other officials said the audit results were inconclusive.

Of those households that earned too much money, most were within range of the poverty level, according to the audit, and their incomes simply may have been misreported or in flux, said state Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita.

And other legislators noted that the income guidelines depend on household earnings, not family earnings, so while some households may be over the income eligibility limit, not all the wage earners in that house are necessarily contributing to the rearing of the student.

In addition, the audit showed that 3,500 students may have been eligible for free lunch but weren’t getting the meals because their families hadn’t applied, mostly because of embarrassment about their finances, according to school officials.

Chronister, former secretary of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, also didn’t put much credence into the discrepancies between free lunch and Census Bureau totals on poverty.

“The federal census is inaccurate,” she said. “They frequently under-report rural areas and high poverty areas.”

Future lunch fight

In the Lawrence school district, 2,300 of the 10,303 students receive free lunch, according to Paula Murrish, director of food services.

Under federal law, Murrish said she is allowed to verify only 3 percent of both free and reduced lunch recipients. Last year, that meant reviewing the pay records of families of 24 children who received free lunch. Of that number, 22 students continued receiving free lunch, and two were changed from free lunch to reduced lunch.

This year, the district received $2.8 million in at-risk funding, which went toward numerous programs.

The state audit is sure to be used in the upcoming legislative session, as funding for at-risk programs is scheduled to more than double under the school finance plan passed during the last legislative session.

During that session, some lawmakers from wealthier districts that had lower numbers of free lunch students were upset about how at-risk funding was driven by the free lunch numbers.

As far as determining free lunch eligibility, lawmakers noted that under federal law schools were limited on how much they could dig into income records to audit applications for free lunch.

But auditors said lawmakers could change the way the state’s at-risk funding is linked to the free lunch program.

The report is available at