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Pasco school workers misstated pay when applying for free lunches, audit says

One manager lost her job, accused of taking advantage of the program she oversaw.

Every year, the district audits a portion of its free and reduced-price lunch applications to ensure they comply with federal requirements.

The system wants to keep its participation intact, to be sure the families that need the service can have it.

“It’s federal money,” assistant superintendent Kevin Shibley said. “That’s something we really can’t mess around with.”

This year, the auditors discovered a “significant number" of district employees on the list who provided an income level on the application that did not match the wages the district is paying them. Investigators are in the middle of interviewing about 215 workers in that category, to determine the reasons for the discrepancies.

Almost all of the staffers have “very logical” explanations, Shibley said. They include providing the net rather than gross income, and entering pay rates from before raises were provided for 2018-19.

They’re being given a chance to resubmit their paperwork, with a cautionary message to be more careful in the future or face additional discipline.

But a tiny number acknowledged they knowingly misrepresented their salaries in order to qualify. And one of them, food services specialist Katie Wright, managed the eligibility verification program for three years.

“She knew how things worked,” Shibley said of Wright, an eight-year district employee.

Wright resigned her position in late October, in lieu of likely termination. The district is having “very serious conversations” with the few others determined to have intentionally provided incorrect information.

In a phone interview, Wright acknowledged she “should have known better.”

But she said she had seen in past instances that when Pasco school employees were caught for misstating their income, they would receive a letter telling them to fix their mistakes.

“No one was ever asked to resign because of this,” Wright said. “I did not realize it was a fireable offense.”

She explained that, as a single parent trying to complete a college degree and pay medical bills, it had become increasingly difficult to make ends meet. She figured getting free meals for her child would help.

Wright said she has struggled to find a new job since leaving the district.

Shibley acknowledged that the district’s salaries are low, and the administration and School Board are attempting to find ways to boost pay so fewer employees will needs to participate in the National School Lunch Program. The board and United School Employees of Pasco recently negotiated increased wages on top of an across the board raise for several classes of school-related personnel.

Still, Shibley said, that’s no excuse for purposely taking advantage of a program.

The district expects to complete its investigation by the end of December.