The Chicago Public School Districts’s Office of Inspector General’s 2022 annual report suggests that district employees are engaged in persistent and widespread fraud in how CPS students gain Free and Reduced-Price Meal (FRM) eligibility.
The Chicago Public School District is faced with “persistent and widespread fraud” by highly-paid employees taking advantage of food stamp and state-subsidized health care benefits by underreporting their income, according to a 2022 annual report from the district’s Office of Inspector General.
The report provides multiple instances where CPS staff fraudulently underreported their income and received SNAP benefits while making their children eligible for free-and-reduced lunches at their schools. The examples cited in the report occurred from 2016 through 2020.
The school district stated that it has participated in a federal program for more than a decade that provides free lunches to all enrolled students, regardless of their family’s income.
The Inspector General report states that the eligibility of students for free-and-reduced lunches is important because it is “also the determination of other important funding streams for CPS.”
FREE AND REDUCED-PRICE MEAL ELIGIBILITY FRAUD
For more than a decade, the OIG has investigated and reported on persistent and widespread fraud in how CPS students gain Free and Reduced-Price Meal (FRM) eligibility. In annual reports for fiscal years 2010-11, 2011-12, and 2012-13, the OIG detailed large-scale investigations of CPS staff who fraudulently underreported their incomes and/or overreported their household sizes so that their children who attended CPS schools would qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. Those reports also noted that the number of FRM-eligible students factored not only into reimbursement for school meals, but also the determination of other important funding streams for CPS.
In this year’s report, the OIG again reports on cases in which the children of CPS employees were improperly designated as FRM-eligible. As in previous investigations, some of these employees fraudulently underreported their incomes to their children’s schools. In other instances, however, the OIG found that the children of highly compensated CPS employees were deemed FRM-eligible because the employees fraudulently obtained SNAP (i.e., “food stamps”) and/or health care benefits. CPS students can be “automatically” qualified for FRM eligibility without additional income reporting based on receipt of these state benefits.
Although the role of FRM-status in CPS’s funding has changed over the past several years, the measure still plays a role in how CPS allocates funding to its schools and in certain federal funding programs.
- Elementary School Principal Knew or Should Have Known That Her Ex-Husband Excluded Her Income on CPS Family Income Information Forms for Their Children (20-00828)
An OIG investigation found that an elementary school principal knew or should have known that her ex-husband improperly omitted her six-figure income on at least three CPS Family Income Information Forms and failed to correct them. On the forms, the principal’s ex-husband disclosed only his own significantly smaller salary even though he does not live with the principal or their three children at her Chicago residence, the address listed on the forms. As a result, their children were improperly designated as eligible for free and reduced-priced meals for the 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19 school years. The principal told the OIG that her ex-husband completed the forms because he made less money, demonstrating that she was aware of and even condoned her omission from the forms and failed to correct them before they were submitted.
The OIG recommended appropriate discipline for the principal. Accordingly, the Board issued the principal a 10-day suspension.
- High School Teacher Improperly Told Wife to Exclude His CPS Salary on Family Income Information Forms for Their Children’s Schools (20-00837)
A high school teacher told his wife to improperly exclude his nearly $100,000 salary when she completed CPS Family Income Information Forms for their three children. As a result, their children were incorrectly designated as eligible for free and reduced- price meals. The OIG obtained forms for the children for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, all of which were completed by the teacher’s wife. On three of the forms, she excluded the teacher and his salary and instead reported extremely low biweekly income. On the most recently completed form, however, the wife accurately reported the teacher and his salary, and their child was marked FRM-ineligible.
The teacher admitted to the OIG that he told his wife to exclude his income on the forms. He explained that until recently, he and his wife had been estranged. While he paid her child support and they led “separate lives,” they also continued living in the same house with their children. The OIG obtained court docket information, CPS records, and Cook County property records that generally supported the teacher’s description of his marital issues. Nevertheless, for the purposes of CPS’s family income forms, he was still a member of his family’s household and his income should have been reported. The teacher also told the OIG that he and his wife had recently reconciled, which was roughly corroborated by the most recent, accurately reported income form. Notably, the teacher’s wife also filled out that form before the OIG initiated this investigation, suggesting that it was not a motivating factor for the wife’s now-accurate income reporting.
The OIG recommended appropriate discipline for the teacher. The Board initiated dismissal proceedings against the teacher, which are currently pending.
- Special Education Teacher Lived in Gary, Indiana, Knew or Should Have Known That Her Partner Fraudulently Obtained Public Benefits from the State of Illinois (20-01047)
An OIG investigation found that a special education teacher violated CPS’s residency policy by moving to Gary, Indiana. The teacher also knew or should have known that the father of her two young children committed public benefits fraud by failing to report her CPS salary in his applications for SNAP and AllKids medical benefits. As a result of this fraud, their daughter was also improperly designated as free/reduced meal eligible at her CPS school.
Evidence showed that the teacher and her partner lived with their kids in a single- family home in Chicago at the address the teacher had on file with CPS for most of her career. In late 2019, however, the teacher sold the property and purchased a home in Gary, and she and her family moved there in 2020. The teacher did not have, and was not eligible for, a CPS residency waiver.
The teacher told the OIG that she and her partner had “big plans” for the Gary home, but when those plans “went south,” she decided to stay in Chicago while her partner and children lived in Gary. Nevertheless, the teacher admitted that she worked remotely for CPS’s Virtual Academy from the Gary home every day, and claimed that she commuted back to Chicago at night.
The OIG did not find the teacher credible because she repeatedly lied about her true address. After she sold her Chicago home, she changed her address on file with CPS to one in Hyde Park that was actually a mailbox at a UPS store. The teacher later admitted to the OIG that she didn’t live in Hyde Park and instead claimed that she lived elsewhere in Chicago with a CPS colleague. When the OIG interviewed the colleague, however, she said the teacher never lived with her.
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Throughout their time together, the teacher’s partner received income-based AllKids and SNAP benefits from the State of Illinois despite the teacher’s CPS salary. A report by the Inspector General for the Illinois Department of Health and Family Services found that the partner failed to report the teacher’s income and continued to receive Illinois benefits even after moving out of state to Gary. The OIG found that the teacher was aware that her partner received benefits and knew or should have known that he failed to report her salary.
The OIG recommended the teacher receive a Do Not Hire designation and would have recommended discharge had she not resigned during this investigation. Accordingly, CPS has given her a Do Not Hire designation.
- Elementary School Teacher Fraudulently Obtained Public Benefits from the State of Illinois and Free/Reduced Meal Eligibility for Her Children (20-01050)
A former elementary school teacher fraudulently obtained SNAP and AllKids public benefits from the State of Illinois. Because recipients of these benefits can be directly certified by CPS as eligible for free and reduced-price meals, the teacher’s children were also improperly designated as FRM-eligible at their CPS schools.
The teacher was employed at CPS from August 2003 until her termination and Do Not Hire designation in February 2021 for drinking alcohol while on duty. In June 2020 — well before she was fired — the teacher applied for state benefits, claiming that her employment with CPS had ended that month. In reality, the teacher was still gainfully employed with CPS and continued to be until her termination. Due to her false application, the teacher qualified for and began receiving benefits in June 2020.
Due to the drinking incident, the teacher was already terminated and given a Do Not Hire designation. Had she still been employed with CPS, the OIG would have recommended the same actions. Additionally, the OIG referred the teacher’s case to the Office of Inspector General for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, who conducted its own investigation and found that the teacher had committed public benefits fraud. Finally, the CPS Law Department advised the OIG that it had notified ISBE of the teacher’s misconduct.