ALBANY The charges lodged Friday against Dougherty County Board of Education member Velvet Riggins, who is accused of falsifying information on an application for free or reduced-cost school lunches and of committing an offense as a public official, should be sufficient cause for an independent investigation of the program as a whole.
The reduced-cost and free school lunch programs are important to many families who have trouble ensuring their children have a decent lunch. In Dougherty County, which has its share of poverty, more than four out of every five of the public schools’ 16,000 students received reduced-cost or free lunches.
But there is no place for those with means to take advantage of a program meant for those with real needs. With tax dollars as tight as they are, any money that goes to those who don’t qualify is money that can’t be spent on those with legitimate needs.
Riggins’ charges come after Morningside Elementary Principal Gloria Baker and her husband were each charged with three counts of falsifying free/reduced cost lunch applications. Baker makes more than $90,000 a year as a principal.
Are these just two isolated cases? Frankly, we believe it’s doubtful. We suspect there is a problem and that it is much more widespread. But there’s no way to find out for certain unless a local or state agency with subpoena power gets involved.
We know this first hand. Last month, The Albany Herald placed an Open Records request for information on school lunch applications made by school system employees and School Board members. That request was denied on the grounds that federal statutes or regulations require that the records be kept confidential.
That means there is no way for taxpayers to know whether their money is being spent properly, which is in serious doubt right now.
We also have no confidence that the School Board itself can credibly investigate this scandal. When the School Board decided last month that Baker should be suspended for 15 days rather than subjected to a stiffer penalty such as termination, the decision came down to a 4-3 vote. The deciding vote in favor of the suspension? Riggins, who at the very least should have abstained from voting at all. The fact that she didn’t brings into serious question the School Board’s ability to handle this issue with integrity.
It also smacks of the all-too-familiar political situation in which the proverbial fox was in charge of helping “protect” the taxpayers’ hen house.
On top of that, attempts to even find out basic information such as who, if anyone, checks and approves the applications have been fruitless. We are suspicious that the school system, in fact, doesn’t have anyone who does one thing more than take a piece of paper and file it away in a drawer somewhere. Certainly if anyone is in charge of checking out these applications, he or she should have recognized the name of a school principal or a School Board member and questioned whether they were truly impoverished to the point of needing taxpayer help to feed their kids every day.
The School Board, which meets Monday night, should show leadership here and call for an independent investigation of the school lunch program. We encourage the board to do just that.