Bill aimed at stopping understatement of income to avoid school fees

Aaron Chambers

Note to parents: Understate your income to avoid paying fees for sports or driver’s education, and the school district will bust you.

That’s the idea behind a bill state Rep. Dave Winters, R-Shirland, is sponsoring to allow school districts to check a family’s income more frequently to make sure they qualify for fee waivers.

By granting schools more flexibility to verify income eligibility, Winters said, schools will avoid losing the fee dollars they increasingly depend on to balance their budgets.

House lawmakers this month may vote on the bill, which has already cleared a House committee.

Jim Metz, chief operating officer for the Belvidere School District, said school officials suspect that some parents report lower incomes to qualify for the free or reduced-price school lunch program.

“There’s no way to prove that it is happening,” Metz said. “Certainly, the rumor is that it is happening. … I wish we could verify it also.”

What started as a response to a perceived local problem — parents who “fudge” their incomes, as Winters put it — has evolved into an intricate plan for schools to separate some fees from the free and reduced-price lunch fees.

Illinois schools use a family’s eligibility for federally funded lunch programs as a benchmark to charge fees attached to other services. If a family’s income is low enough to qualify for the free lunch program, certain other fees are waived as well.

A family of four can make up to $38,203 annually and qualify for reduced-cost meals, and up to $26,845 annually for free meals, according to the State Board of Education.

Schools typically check income only at the beginning of the school year, state officials said. Federal rules allow districts to randomly verify the income of just 3 percent of qualifying families.

A district may verify an individual family’s income but only with “cause” — documented evidence of fraud — said Matt Vanover, spokesman for the State Board of Education.

Winters designed his bill to skirt the federal rule, which deals directly with the free and reduced-price lunch program. By keeping student fees separate, a School District could verify a family’s income, as it pertains to an exemption from those fees, as often as once every 60 days.

After introducing his bill in February, Winters said it was inspired by a conversation with a local school official.

“(The School District) had parents that came in once a year, at the beginning of the year, and qualified for free and reduced (lunch),” Winters said. “And (district officials) had the feeling that (the parents) were actually scamming the system, that they artificially held down the number of hours worked or somehow got below the standard for free and reduced lunch. (The district) wanted the opportunity to go back (during the year) and verify.”

Winters has the support of other legislators on the issue.

“I think it’s been going on a long time,” said Rep. Karen Yarbrough, D-Broadview.

Winters is working closely with Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican and school superintendent in his downstate town.

Eddy said he doesn’t necessarily suspect parents are scamming school districts. Still, he said the Winters bill would be helpful to deal with parents who, midway through the school year, suddenly earn more money.

“Once you do that (annual) check of the applications, you’re done. And after that a lot of things could change,” Eddy said. “You don’t want to check everybody all the time. But if you have good reason, why not check a second time?”

Andrea Zimmermann contributed to this report. Aaron Chambers can be reached at (217) 782-2959 or