Three current or former Pleasantville school board members are among more than 100 public officials and employees or their family members statewide who have been accused of fraudulently getting free or reduced-fee school meals for their children.
The report, released Wednesday by the state Office of the Comptroller, reviewed applications for the National School Lunch Program in a random sampling of 15 districts with high percentages of students in the program. Those districts included Pleasantville, Egg Harbor Township and Millville.
No public employees were found to have submitted fraudulent information in Egg Harbor Township. In Millville, four people who held public jobs, but not in the school district, are alleged to have filed inaccurate forms.
The state report does not list any names but has turned the information over to the Division of Criminal Justice for review and possible criminal charges.
The Press of Atlantic City has confirmed the names of two of the Pleasantville school board members. They are current member Ethel Seymore, who is up for re-election this year, and former member Johnny McClennan, who lost his seat in the 2012 election but has filed to run for the board again in November.
Seymore called the allegations a mistake, saying she misunderstood what was required. Contacted by phone, she declined to elaborate, saying she was advised not to discuss the situation.
McClellan, also contacted by phone, said he did not fill out the application form.
“I told them I didn’t do it,” he said, referring to the state investigators. He also declined to comment further. The application must include information for all members of a household.
The Press was unable to confirm the third Pleasantville board member alleged to have filed a false report. That person is no longer serving on the board.
Pete McAleer, spokesman for the comptroller’s office, declined to release names, but confirmed that only one of the three Pleasantville school board members is currently on the board. He said all three had served at least sometime during the three-year audit review period covering the 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years.
Pleasantville school board President Darleen Bey-Blocker said she was not told who the three people are, but that she got calls all day Wednesday because the report says that one board member works for the county, and so does she.
“But it’s not me,” she said, noting that at least two other board members who served during the three-year time period under review also work for the county. She said she was disappointed, but not entirely surprised by the allegations.
Pleasantville has a state monitor, and Department of Education spokesman Richard Vespucci said if the law-enforcement review results in criminal indictments, the department is prepared to take action based on the findings.
The report has renewed debate over whether the state should continue to use the percentage of students getting free lunch as the basis for state aid allocations. An audit in 2011 had suggested the state find a new aid formula, since there was a high rate of rejections among audited applications for the program.
Federal law requires that districts audit just 3 percent of their applications each year. State Comptroller Matthew Boxer said they were concerned that public employees could use their knowledge of the program to improperly obtain benefits.
“Dozens of public employees appear to have lied about their income in order to take advantage of a school program designed to help families in need,” Boxer said in a statement issues with the report.
The report found that of the 3 percent of applications reviewed by the districts in 2090-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12, Egg Harbor Township reduced or rejected 73 percent, Pleasantville reduced or rejected 48 percent, and Millville reduced or rejected 39 percent. Applications are automatically rejected if applicants do not provide the additional financial information requested, and that is the reason for many rejections.
The report also faulted the state Department of Agriculture, which manages the NSLP, for failing to forward to districts a 2012 memo from the U.S. Department of Agriculture authorizing them to use payroll information to identify questionable applications by district employees. Forty of the 109 cases were school district employees.
The report cites two of the Pleasantville cases, but not by name.
In one, it says the school board member underreported her household income on her NSLP application by an average of about $59,000 for two of the three years OSC reviewed. She told investigators that she did not include her own income on the applications because she herself was not the person receiving the free student lunch. She also said her income “is none of (the school district’s) damn business.” The OSC also referred the board member to the state Division of Taxation as a result of her failure to file state income tax returns for multiple years.
A second Pleasantville school board member, who is a county employee, underreported her income by about $67,000 each of the three years reviewed, according to the report. She said she did not look at pay stubs when she filled out the report and that she did not know her husband’s income and reported only what he told her. She also did not report income of adult children living with her, saying they did not contribute to the household.
Total underreported income in the 109 cases the OSC has referred for prosecution totaled $13.9 million over the three-year period reviewed. If charged and convicted under the federal law, they could be fined as much as $25,000 and imprisoned for as long as five years.
The OSC began its investigation of the free lunch program after the Elizabeth Board of Education president and others affiliated with the Elizabeth School District were arrested for filing fraudulent free-lunch applications.
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