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N.J. District Sues Parents of Nonresident Students

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Seeking to deter the unauthorized enrollment of students from outside its borders, a New Jersey district has sued 16 families it suspects of the practice to recover whopping tuition payments.

The South Orange-Maplewood school district in Essex County filed suit in state court this month seeking more than $500,000 in back tuition from the parents and guardians of 19 students alleged to reside in other districts.

The families named in the suit face having to make back tuition payments ranging from about $5,600 to more than $104,000, depending on the number of children involved and the length of their attendance. Most of the defendants are being asked to pay between $30,000 and $50,000.

The families "have been unjustly enriched at the expense of taxpayers of South Orange and Maplewood" and "should be disgorged of their unjust enrichment," the suit contends.

Superintendent Ralph Lieber said the district is trying to send parents the message that it is serious about keeping nonresident children from illegally enrolling.

"The publicity surrounding it will give other parents cause to pause," added James H. Murphy, the executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.

A handful of other districts in the state have recently taken similar actions, Mr. Murphy said, but none as drastic as South Orange-Maplewood's.

Elsewhere in New Jersey and in other states, districts have been surveilling students, setting up elaborate student-documentation programs, and offering rewards to tipsters in an effort to keep illegally enrolled students from placing additional strains on their budgets. (See Education Week, 6/3/92.)

'Taking Necessary Steps'

Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said such districts "are not being mean-spirited" but are simply taking necessary steps to cope with tight budgets.

"There is a substantial loss of property-tax revenue and state aid when they have these illegal placements," Mr. Belluscio said.

Last year, his association estimated that 8,000 to 10,000 children were being enrolled illegally at an annual cost to districts of $8 million to $10 million.

The problem has since abated somewhat, Mr. Belluscio said, probably because of a change in state law that allows districts to require parents to prove their children's residency. Previously, districts had the burden of proof when they alleged that students did not live within their borders.

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