Feature

Boundary Crossings: A Matter of Residency

School districts clamp down on illegally enrolled students, while some states encourage interdistrict transfers by KIMBERLY REEVES


Greg Moore fills two distinct roles in his unusual job with the Riverview Gardens School District on the northern edge of St. Louis. He’s both a one-man welcome committee and the chief law enforcer.

School district officials admit Moore's job description is "schizophrenic." Half of the former FBI agent's time is spent seeking out students who should be enrolled in the Riverview Gardens schools. He drops in on apartment complex managers and local business owners, puts up posters and talks with parents who live in this growing blue-collar community. He balances enrollment among a dozen district schools, shifting students among campuses to stretch classroom space in the school district's aging facilities.

The other half of Moore's time as the district's coordinator of residency/enrollment is spent investigating allegations of what the Riverview Gardens school system calls "educational larceny." That means seeking out the families who have their children enrolled in Riverview Gardens schools but shouldn't. Superintendent Chris Wright calls Moore's work for the school district a regrettable but necessary choice for the property-poor community.

"If I had my preference, I'd educate every child," Wright says. "I think that it's a great credit to the school district that we have so many families seeking out the Riverview Gardens school district for their children. But we have a fiscal responsibility to our community to ensure that the children attending our schools have a legitimate and legal right to do so."

In other words, Riverview Gardens can't afford the bond issue these illegally enrolled students are bringing upon the school district. Taxpayers in this inner-ring suburb of 7,200 students already carry bond debt that has added a dollar to the school district's tax rate. Enrollment has grown by 25 percent in the five years Wright has been there, even though few new houses have been put on the ground in her working-class neighborhood.

"Our community has been more than generous in their willingness to upgrade our facilities, but there's a point where that must stop," Wright says.

Uncommon Tactics
Illegally enrolled students are like a dull toothache for most superintendents. Few school leaders would deny students cross attendance boundary lines, but most school systems have been unwilling to dedicate the time and resources to ferret out those students.

"We don't want to be Big Brother. We have so many other problems we need to tackle," says Joseph Donzelli, a spokesman for the sprawling Broward County Public Schools based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "We've got student achievement and funding problems and construction issues and making sure we have the best teachers we can get. Certainly we will investigate and confirm whether a child enrolls under false pretenses, but we have more than a quarter of a million students enrolled here."

Ironically, as enrollment barriers in many public schools are dropping, more school districts are actively pursuing illegally enrolled students. Public outcry and a growing tax pinch are taking away the school district's prerogative to overlook the problem. Several state legislatures have demanded over the last five years that school districts put out the border crossers--especially those who cross state lines--or face the loss of state funding.

The measures school districts use to catch students are sometimes unconventional, if not radical. One New Jersey school district offered a $100 reward for those who turned in a non-resident student. Districts in Illinois are pursuing claims against parents--and even sometimes teachers--for back tuition on illegally enrolled students. One school district outside of Cleveland was willing to take parents to court.

In Riverview Gardens, the residential addresses of more than 200 families were investigated when Moline Acres Elementary School opened two years ago. Another 175 families were examined last year. The school district estimates that Moore's work has saved about $1.1 million annually in unnecessary expenditures.

"It's not a pleasant job, but I would say it was absolutely worth it," says Moore, who has gone so far as to put a suspected student's house under surveillance to confirm residency. "When you have to bring them in and then put them out, it's not a good feeling, but someone has to do it."

Unpopular Pursuits
For much of the holiday season of 1996, assistant city attorney Rick Wiegand was both the most reviled and respected man in Euclid, Ohio. He was the topic of every radio talk show and the star of the evening television newscasts. Taxpayers hailed him on the street and called his house to congratulate him. Educators, Wiegand says today, "hated me."

Wiegand was the city attorney willing to send a mother of a kindergarten student to jail for illegally enrolling her child in the Euclid City School District. A Euclid municipal judge sentenced the mother to 90 days in jail and forced her to pay restitution to the school district for falsifying an affidavit to enroll her child in Euclid, a district neighboring her own. The woman was charged with "theft of services."

Wiegand has no regrets. A civil case against parents, such as a lawsuit seeking back tuition, is a slap on the hand. A criminal procedure dissuades parents from committing the same crime again, he says.

"People say, 'I'm only doing this for the benefit of my child,' but you could use the same principle to walk into Nordstrom's and steal clothes off the rack," Wiegand adds. "It's the same kind of dishonesty."

Euclid is an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland, a middle-class blue-collar community with 6,200 students. The school system worked directly with city leaders to craft the ordinance that could be used to take parents to court, says Patrick Newkirk, the district's residency compliance officer.

"We've utilized the ordinance, I would say, on a dozen occasions over the last three years," says Newkirk, a former captain in the Euclid police department in charge of criminal investigations. "This is specifically intended for those parents who still resisted our efforts, even after they were identified."

The school district also pursues tuition claims against the parents in small claims court, at roughly $600 per month. Reaction from the community has been strong on both sides, says Newkirk, but the program is also successful.

"The investigations have allowed us to isolate the district for those parents who truly live here and eliminate those who are involved in so-called district jumping," Newkirk says. "We've probably discovered 100 students in the last three years, and that's a cost that's borne by the taxpayers."

Strain on Children
Marilyn Loushin-Miller, superintendent of the Hillsborough City Elementary School District outside of San Francisco, says the cost of border hopping is emotional, as well as financial. Her tiny district of 1,400 students in grades kindergarten through 8th grade deals with 40 or so students each year whose parents illegally enroll them in the high-achieving school system. The person who suffers the most when that happens is the child, not the parent, she says.

"When a child, any child, comes into a classroom he's viewed as a co-equal member of that class," Loushin-Miller says. "If a child is removed, every one of the children in that classroom suffers. It's a terrible situation."

The emotional strain of ripping young children from their teacher and friends, combined with bulging school facilities under California's lower student-to-teacher ratios, forced Loushin-Miller to come up with another option for the district.

A registrar to sort the initial enrollment process was added last year to the Hillsborough staff. Eighty or so children whose grandparents live in the Hillsborough district are still allowed to attend classes, but even that now is limited by the classroom space Loushin-Miller has available on her four campuses.

"We had to create another system that prevented this from happening to children," Loushin-Miller says. "Adults were making decisions about children, and the adults don't understand the consequences of their actions."

The process of allowing transfers between schools in a district can mean big headaches for the school system. The District of Columbia Public Schools face daunting interest in its student transfers program each year. Assistant Superintendent Ralph Neal, who oversees the program, says 5,000 students applied this year for transfers between schools within the 71,000-student district in the one-month window the district established for applications.

The district has several names for these applications: discretionary transfers; out-of-boundary transfers; and special permission transfers. As the principal at 350-student Eastern Senior High School in Southeast Washington, Neal would enroll 50 9th-grade students from outside his attendance area in his three on-site academies each year.

"We try to give parents and members of our community choice and give them different options for them to attend school," Neal says. "Approval depends on how much space we have available. I'd say we approve probably about 15 percent of the applications that we receive each year."

Escalating Acts
Boundary crossing is especially prevalent in inner-ring districts that abut large urban districts. Specialized academic programs--not to mention championship interscholastic sports teams--also are a big draw for parents who are willing to forge or fake documents to enroll.

In the 60,000-student Cypress-Fairbanks school district on the edge of Houston, the lure is full-day pre-kindergarten. David Schrandt, coordinator of student admissions, attendance and transfers, says the program, which is not mandatory in surrounding districts, is attractive to many families who want to cut daycare costs.

"A lot of people use false information to get access to our school district. They may say they are living with somebody in the district. They may offer fake leases. Those are things that we catch," says Schrandt, who supervises four truancy officers. "In the case of the fake leases, we actually had the manager of the apartment complex fired."

Last year, more than 1,545 suspected cases of illegally enrolled students were referred to Schrandt’s office for investigation, leading to the expulsion of 865 students. Referrals grow by about 10 percent annually. "For us, the number is only getting bigger each year," he says.

The Cypress-Fairbanks school district does make exceptions for those families willing to pay for the privilege. For high school students, the tuition is $3,000 a year, and up to 50 students typically take advantage.

The 23,000-student Hazelwood school district, outside of St. Louis, has removed up to 250 children a year who were enrolled illegally. An investigator and an intake officer work with assistant safety and security director Audrey Cherry to sort through suspected cases. The burden of proof of residency is placed squarely on the parents, and their excuses for faking residency are as varied as each case, Cherry says.

"Every situation is different. Sometimes mom and dad may work and they want a school close to work," she says. "Sometimes grandma lives in our district and the family lives in the adjoining district and they want grandma to take care of those kids. A lot of it will come down to convenience."

Hazelwood has taken a handful of chronic residency violators to court. Publicity on the new policy and its consequences, says Cherry, has cut the number of violators almost in half over the last two years.

State Encouragement
For all the school systems that are fighting illegally enrolled students, others are being encouraged through state legislation to permit inter- and intra-district transfers. Notably, suburban school districts in Milwaukee and St. Louis have used state laws designed to encourage racial integration to allow transfers across district lines for 25 years.

St. Louis, in particular, has seen plenty of buy-in for interdistrict transfers from local communities. But these extensive transfer options have not been widely emulated by other metropolitan areas, and interest in inter-district transfers varies by school district and by state.

New Jersey last year picked 10 school districts for a new Interdistrict Public School choice program. Ultimately 21 school districts, varying in location and by demographics, will participate.

Under the statewide transfer program, a limited number of seats--whatever is available in the school districts--are made available to all students in the state. The state transfers its funding from the home district to the new district of choice for the student.

The first 10 pilot choice districts received 150 applications from potential students a year ago, hardly a landslide of interest.

Jeff Osowski, assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, says charter schools, open enrollment and interdistrict transfers are ways to both boost enrollment and beef up program quality in small school districts. He points to one school district that wants increased enrollment to support an art or foreign language teacher. Another district needs to attract additional students to its specialized agricultural program.

"The only thing we're limited by in this program is distance, transportation and time," Osowski says. "These are school districts that have space available and want to attract students to enhance their programming or budget."

Unfair and Unwanted
In Michigan, though, the 20 school districts of Kent County said no thanks to Gov. John Engler's offer during the last legislative session to erase school boundaries between counties. The state's 57 regional educational service agencies were encouraged to sign off on student transfers between counties. The only catch was that counties had to be contiguous.

Kent County is a mix of school systems, ranging from the 1,300 students of the Godfrey Lee district to the 26,700-student Grand Rapids district. The county's students live in urban and suburban areas, with a dash of dairy farmers and apple growers.

Students had transferred across district lines within Kent County for the last eight years but school leaders viewed transfers between counties as another matter. The issue was taxes. Kent County residents levy themselves for both special education services and a vocational technology program that serves 2,600 students. The total tab on the tax levy comes to $50 million per year.

“Some of the neighboring counties didn't have the scope or degree of programs that we offer," says George Woons, superintendent of Kent County’s regional service agency. "A lot of that cost is born by the taxpayers in the county. I told our superintendents, and they agreed, that it might be advantageous to share our programs with school districts that might not have the population to have economies of scale on similar programs."

The choice and level of participation in the new transfer program is up to the individual service agencies, says spokesman Brad Wurful of the Michigan Department of Education.

"Michigan has supported expanded choice for parents. Part of that has been the charter school movement; another part has been choice within the public school system," he says. "The underpinning of this is that the local school districts make the decision as to what level of choice they want to use."

Kimberly Reeves is a free-lance education writer in Houston. E-mail: kreeves@reporters.net