Winston-Salem charter school to repay school lunch funds

A Winston-Salem public charter school has agreed to pay back $52,000 after state education officials accused the school of mishandling federal lunch program funds last year.

Quality Education Academy, which opened as one of the state’s first charter schools in 1997, had initially denied any wrongdoing but agreed to a settlement Thursday to repay the funds.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction had initially asked the school to repay more than $94,000 stemming from breakfast, lunches and snacks that the staff at Quality Education Academy served from August 2011 to February 2012 to students at the school, where approximately 80 percent of students qualified for free and reduced lunches last year.

The state, in a July 2 letter sent to QEA director Simon Johnson, said the school was not counting how many meals it actually served, and relied on outdated school rosters to estimate that meant that the school may have been over-claiming how much it should be compensated in federal funds.

N.C. Policy Watch obtained a copy of the letter through a public records request.

“Benefits insurance rosters were not update on a daily basis,” DPI staff wrote in a critical review of the school’s lunch program. “As a result, students were included on the daily rosters that were no longer enrolled in the schools.”

Charter schools in North Carolina aren’t required to provide lunches to children, a point of contention for critics of the publicly-funded, privately-run system of charter school that serve as an alternative to traditional public schools. Not proving affordable meal options or transportation can exclude the thousands of low-income children in the state from freely attending the public charters schools, critics say.

Supporters cite the lack of requirements as the flexibility charter schools need to seek out innovative teaching strategies and avoid cumbersome regulations.

But charter schools can opt to join the state’s child nutrition program, and 34 of the 109 in the state do participate. Accessing the federal funds also means the schools need to follow the program rules, which outlines the types of meals and caloric requirements for meals served to children and covers the cost of poor children.

At the Winston-Salem charter school, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction received a phone call last fall that the school was not abiding by rules government the federal school lunch program,according to Katie Cornetto, a DPI attorney. A routine audit conducted earlier this year uncovered a loosely-monitored program at QEA, and the state asked for $94,000 in repayment.

State public education officials believe that the school didn’t count each meal as it was served, one of the many requirements of the public lunch program. A review of school lunch data provided by the state also indicates that the school reported serving more meals during some months than the number of students enrolled the schools.

An analysis of six months of lunch records show that the school claimed it served an average of 334 to 438 lunches a day from August 2011 to February 2012, a portion of which were free and reduced meals paid for by federal funds. But QEA disputed the allegations, but agreed pay back $52,000 instead of going forward with a scheduled hearing on the allegations Thursday.

Stephon Bowens, an attorney for QEA, said the school plans on improving its management of the lunch program.

“We don’t agree with all the numbers the state has alleged,” Bowens said. “At the same time, we’re trying to look forward and not backwards.”

(Bowens serves on the board of the N.C. Justice Center, a statewide anti-poverty non-profit that N.C. Policy Watch in a project under. He nor any other board member had any part in the reporting or writing of this article.)

Lynn Harvey, who heads the child nutrition department for the N.C. Department of Instruction, says the need for subsidized lunches is very real in the state.

Out of the 1.5 million in North Carolina’s public school population, half quality for either free or reduced lunches.

Even the reduced meal prices, $0.30 for breakfast or $0.40 for lunch, can be too much for a family that’s struggling to get by.

“There are many families who 40 cents might as well be $4,000,” she said.

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