Are Changes in New Jersey School-Lunch Program Still on the Menu?

John Mooney | July 30, 2013 | Education
Task force named by governor to look at poverty measure in school aid hasn’t convened since August 2012

school lunch (girls)
A lot of talk about improving how the state determines school funding through its subsidized-lunch program for needy public-school students has been reduced to barely a whisper.

A task force appointed by Gov. Chris Christie to make the funding formula more efficient and accurate hasn’t met for a year.

When abuses of the lunch program were made public by the state comptroller earlier his month, one of his main recommendations was that the state rethink the poverty measure commonly used to determine state aid for districts.

But that was one of the jobs already assigned to the task force created by Gov. Chris Christie by executive order in March 2012. It was empowered to look into how the state could better measure student enrollment and, specifically, poverty levels in its school-funding formula.

The task force members were appointed that summer and held a public hearing in August 2012 to garner input from advocates, educators and stakeholders. The panel was charged with coming up with a report within 120 days.

Then suddenly, the task force went quiet. And it’s not known when – or if – it will meet again, let alone make its recommendations.

At this point, the student measures have not changed, and if changes are ever proposed, they would now to need to wait to the 2014-15 school year at the earliest.

Christie’s spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said yesterday that the task force’s work was put on hold while state comptroller Matthew Boxer completed his own work.

Boxer’s investigation found that in a sampling of 15 districts, more than 100 public employees had wrongfully registered for the subsidized meals by failing to report or under-reporting family income.

Boxer said the state’s funding formula, which bases general school aid on a level of poverty as measured by the school-lunch program, had proven to be a perverse incentive for some districts.

“There were criminal investigations and a contemporaneous comptroller’s inquiry,” Drewniak said in an email yesterday. “It made little sense, and was actually advantageous, to let those things take their course. Basically, it was a good time to put the pens and pads down until these results became public.”

Asked if the task force would be reconvened now that Boxer’s report was out, Drewniak referred back to the statement: “I cannot say at this moment when the task force will resume, but clearly the results we’ve seen to date show the consequences, failure and folly of relying on the enrollment data and eligibility standards and lax oversight for the lunch program when it comes to establishing school funding determinations. The system encourages fraud and abuse.”

State Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks, who chairs the seven-member task force of educators and local officials, declined last week to comment on the task force’s work last year or on when and if it would meet again.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s office also wouldn’t comment on the next steps for the task force, other than saying the issue remained under review.

NJ Spotlight sought to reach several members of the task force, but those contacted also declined comment.

The lack of action hasn’t gone over well with state Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren), who stood with Christie more than a year ago when he announced the task force.

A loud frequent of the state’s funding formula, Doherty cited how that announcement came after the State Auditor in 2011 had also issued a scathing report about abuses in the school lunch program.

“It does get a little frustrating, more than a year down the road to see these same issues keep cropping up,” Doherty said.

“We need a solution,” he said. “But there is always an election cycle, and everyone doesn’t want to ruffle feathers. But here we are, with the problem continuing to fester.”