Two food service workers with the Edmonds School District resigned earlier this year after administrators found out about the scam. A recent state auditor's report backed the district's findings.
The district is now on the hook to pay back $4,487.75 in federal meals funding.
By contrast, the former employees appear to be largely off the hook.
They resigned before they could be fired. No criminal charges are planned. No legal action is possible, according to administrators. And in any case, the amount of extra pay the employees earned together totaled less than what the district owes the government, much less the costs of a lawyer.
"They'd be hard-pressed to list us as a reference check," district spokeswoman DJ Jakala said.
The school district did not name the employees or the school where they worked, citing privacy laws, but said they had worked for the district for many years.
Children from low-income families receive free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches during the school year through a series of federal programs, most notably the National School Lunch Program. Funding is based on the number of meals served to eligible children. So if a student is absent or does not come through the lunch line on a given day, no funding is received.
The two employees' pay also was based on the number of subsidized meals served. During the entire 2011-12 school year and up to winter break in December 2012, they deliberately clocked time at a local elementary school preparing meals for children who would never receive them, district staff found.
In all, they prepared 1,569 extra meals, including 248 for students who were absent. They trashed the excess food in order to cover up potential gaps in food inventories, district staff found.
A random check finally turned up a discrepancy and flagged the problem.
"It is important to note that the way they stayed under the radar was by adding very, very small increments of time," Jakala said. "Their contract runs in 15-minute increments and the entire period in which they were each doing this totaled less than 40 hours in 13 months."
That worked out to "a pittance" in terms of their paychecks and an outsized headache for administrators.
"It's just egregious," Jakala said.
A search of state audit reports involving the National School Lunch Program yields 30 findings in recent years, mostly involving paperwork mishaps, failure to verify which children qualified, single-bid contracts and other pitfalls.
In two cases, poor data tracking meant the school districts reviewed may have actually shorted themselves on federal reimbursement dollars.
In the Edmonds case, it was the district that alerted state auditors to the problem, state auditor spokesman Matt Miller said. "Their internal controls caught what was going on," he said.
The district now plans to do more random checks at schools.
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