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Report Details CPS Free Lunch Fraud, Improper Financial Benefits

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Pam Zekman Pam Zekman
Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Pam Zekman serves on CBS 2 Chicago’s...
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CHICAGO (CBS)CHICAGO (CBS) – The inspector general of the Chicago Public Schools has issued a devastating report on financial and other abuses in the public school system.

Playing a major role in Wednesday’s report were findings that school employees falsified applications for free lunch programs to get their own children a benefit to which they were not entitled.

CBS 2 Investigator Pam Zekman and the Better Government Association first broke the school lunch fraud story.

The free and reduced lunch program costs CPS an estimated $100 million a year. On Wednesday, CPS Inspector General James Sullivan’s report confirmed findings of falsified applications, calling the violations a serious and possibly system-wide problem.

The report also found more than $1 million in improper benefits paid to retired teachers.

The full report is available on the inspector general’s website.

The federal lunch program was meant to provide nutritious meals to poor children to help them learn.

It requires that parents fill out applications certifying the gross income of their family, with an income cap that varies depending on the number of children in the family.

But as CBS 2 disclosed in 2010, school board employees – including teachers at North-Grand High School – were routinely misstating their income so their own children could qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Among them was math teacher Virgilio Santos, who earned more than $70,000-a-year at North-Grand.

“How can you qualify for the free lunch program with a salary like yours? More than $70,000?” Zekman asked Santos in 2010.

“Sorry, sorry,” was all he said as he drove off.

In the report released Wednesday, the inspector general found 11 North-Grand employees falsified those applications, as well as two parents in law enforcement, so that their children could get free or reduced lunch.

A school clerk also falsified applications for her children, who were attending other schools.

Disciplinary action was being sought for all of the employees involved.

As CBS 2 reported last year, Ascunsion Ayala was removed as principal at North-Grand for allowing falsified applications to be filed by her staff.

Better Government Association Executive Director Andy Shaw praised the move to fire Ayala last year.

“The buck stops at the principal’s desk. She allowed a ripoff of our tax dollars,” Shaw said.

There also was a humorous anecdote in the report. One teacher not only excluded her teacher’s salary from the free lunch application, but she also overstated the size of her household by including the name of her family dog as a child.

School officials declined to be interviewed on camera about the report, but said in a written statement that the findings are disappointing and the new leadership at CPS will not tolerate any activities of this nature.

The inspector general’s report also says the school district improperly paid retired teachers for holiday, vacation and sick time when they worked as substitute teachers. In all, the report says retired teachers working as substitutes collected $1.13 million in improper benefits from 2007 to 2011.

Under a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union in 2007, retired teachers are ineligible for benefit pay and are paid at a per diem rate for substitute teaching.

A system update to block such payments was arranged as a result of the investigation. Sullivan also recommended the district tighten its controls and try to recover money improperly paid.

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