ALBANY -- The Dougherty County School System this week denied an Open Records request from The Albany Herald seeking to review free and reduced lunch applications of system employees and school board members.
In rejecting the request, school system attorney Tommy Coleman wrote in an email that Georgia regulations state that "public disclosure shall not be required for records that are (1) specifically required by federal statute or regulation to be kept confidential."
The request was issued after Morningside Elementary School Principal Gloria Baker and her husband, John, were each charged with three counts of fraud in obtaining free lunches for the past three years for their middle school-aged daughter.
Baker, who earns $90,500 a year, was then suspended for 15 days without pay by the DCSS School Board. Baker, however, still faces fraud charges, and the BOE could still take further action if she is convicted.
The Herald was asking for the employees' lunch applications to compare the stated incomes on the form to system pay records.
Documents obtained by The Herald from the Dougherty County School System show roughly 81 percent of the 16,000 students in the school system are in a free or reduced-fee lunch program.
According to the application for free or reduced lunches, anyone who receives benefits from other USDA programs like SNAP or TANF are eligible for the program, as are most foster children.
Children can get free meals if "your household's gross income is within the free limits on the federal income guidelines."
U.S. Department of Agriculture income eligibility guidelines adopted for July 1, 2011, state that for a household of three, the income cap is $24,089 per year before taxes.
"Access to the application eligibility and certification of children for free and reduced-priced meals and milk is governed by 7 CFR 245.6," Coleman wrote. "Paragraph (f) provides those instances when information can be released without parental notification. It provides, in part, 'the state agency or local education agency, as appropriate, may disclose aggregate about children eligible for free and reduced-price meals or free milk to any party without parental notification and consent when children cannot be identified through the release of aggregate data or by means of deduction.'
"It further provides that the only person directly connected with the administration or enforcement of the program may have access to the child's eligibility information without parental consent, which may include the persons carrying out the program or anyone monitoring, reviewing auditing or investigating the program.
"Absent these strict circumstances, the System must obtain parental consent for disclosure of free and reduced-priced meal eligibility information."
Coleman added that the above-mentioned rules are in place to protect children's identities.
"Federal regulations prevent the disclosure of information that would lead to the identity of a child who is receiving free or reduced-priced meals through means of deduction," Coleman said. "Clearly, the disclosure of the child's parents would lead to the easy deduction of a child's identity and violate this federal regulation."