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Districts Erect Barriers to 'Out of Zone' Students

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As a parent, Don L. Griffith understands why some might chose to sneak their children into a school district other than their own, one with a better academic reputation or perhaps a safer environment.

But as the superintendent of the Decatur city school district in Georgia, Mr. Griffith is pulling out all the stops to prevent families from doing so.

Like many school officials across the country, Mr. Griffith says he increasingly has felt pressure from the public to ferret out nonresident students who are not paying tuition to attend district schools.

A few states, such as Minnesota and Massachusetts, have enacted programs that allow parents to choose among public schools statewide. But those are the exceptions. Most states are seeing the enrollment barriers between districts become stronger.

"The community has the perception that we're overrun with out-of-zone students," Mr. Griffith said in a recent interview. "My feeling is we're not. But this year I've been very methodical about finding out about them and evicting them if that's so."

Mr. Griffith said public pressure in Decatur has edged school officials into a strategy that some other districts have also adopted: hiring a private investigator to pry into suspicious claims of residency.

Elsewhere, districts have gone so far as to offer monetary rewards for tips about nonresident students. One New Jersey district has even sued more than a dozen parents for what it says they owe in back tuition.

Parents, meanwhile, are matching districts' tenacity. While some have withdrawn their children from schools they were attending illegally, and some have paid the tuition that districts charge for nonresidents, others have stepped up their efforts to find a way around the system.

"They're tremendously clever at getting over the barricades," said William Gold, the lawyer handling the lawsuit against parents in the South Orange-Maplewood, N.J., district.

Tips From Taxpayers

Supporters of the crackdowns on nonresident students say it is first a matter of principle and second a matter of fairness to local taxpayers. "The principle being, don't teach kids to steal," Mr. Gold said. "If the kid needs a better education, the parents shouldn't steal it for him."

Students crossing district boundaries to attend school can cost a district thousands of dollars. In New Jersey, districts spend $8 million to $10 million a year educating students who do not live within their boundaries, according to the state's school boards' association.

Such figures were enough to inspire the Clifton, N.J., district south of Paterson to offer a $100 reward to anyone who turned in a nonresident student--a deal it still honors, according to Barry Mascari, the district's supervisor of counseling and student services. "But most people who call in don't ask for money," he said.

District officials try to stop nonresident students before they enroll and have a chance of getting turned in by peers, parents, or community members. Like most school systems, the Clifton district's first line of defense is requiring that students show proof of residency to register. Such proof is usually in the form of a birth certificate, a tax document, a housing lease, or a gas, phone, or electric bill.

A few years ago, Mr. Mascari said, the Clifton district reorganized its registration system so that all students must deal with one person who clears their proof of residence.

In addition, the district uses five part-time investigators who have checked up on the residency of nearly 100 of the district's 8,500 students this school year, he said.

Common signs that call student residency into question, he said, include a student's being dropped off by car rather than bus or mail from the school coming back marked "return to sender."

However, Mr. Mascari said, many families' structures are so complex and chaotic that it is often difficult to determine whether a child is legally residing in the district or not, and parents often go to great lengths to feign residency.

To help New Jersey districts keep out those who don't belong, state officials last year gave localities the authority to set up their own application processes for admission. When children are not living with a parent or legal guardian as established by a state social-service agency, districts can ask for proof of family or economic hardship as a reason for them to attend school outside the district in which they live.

So far this year, the Clifton district has had more than a dozen such applications.

'Don't Send Them Here'

In New Jersey's South Orange-Maplewood district, which has a reputation for academic success, school officials are awaiting the outcome of lawsuit filed in June that seeks more than $500,000 in back tuition from the families of 19 out-of-district students.

"Approximately half of the parents have skipped town, disappeared, or are generally unavailable for the summons of the complaint," said Mr. Gold, the lawyer handling the district's case. The district is seeking a range of payments from the remaining parents--from $9,000 for one year of school for one child to $104,000 for six years of school for three children.

The parents have contested the claims, and Mr. Gold has said he is doubtful that the district will recover any of the money immediately, if ever. But, he said, the suit should send a message to the community: "If you're going to send your kids to another district, don't send them here because we're going to catch you."

Crossing State Lines

Officials in the Teton County, Wyo., school district also have had to confront parents recently for crossing over the border from the Idaho county that shares its name.

Superintendent Sarah Smith said parents often prefer the Wyoming district's uncrowded classrooms and above-average math and science programs. And some send their children to school there for world-class athletic training in Jackson's recreational areas or to give them another chance when they have been unsuccessful in their home district.

Other parents commute from Idaho to the Jackson area to work, and they want their children nearby during the day.

"But our school district is 100 percent funded by local taxes," Ms. Smith said, and cannot afford to support children from outside the county or outside the state.

Faced with enforcement of a rule that requires students to pay a tuition of about $6,000 a year, Ms. Smith said, several parents in the neighboring Idaho county are considering a seemingly drastic solution--transferring guardianship of their children to residents of Teton County, Wyo.

In Kentucky, students who cross the border from West Virginia to attend school have caught the attention of state officials who object to spending Kentucky money on out-of-state children.

Last summer, the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability told the Pike County district that it would lose $95,000 in state education funds as a penalty for allowing at least 17 West Virginia students to attend high school there in the 1994-95 school year.

Bruce Hopkins, a spokesman for the Pike County district, said the state was reviewing other border counties to pressure districts into monitoring their enrollments. Pike County, for one, has since started requiring students from outside its borders to pay $3,800 a year in tuition.

Enrollment in Pike County has dropped slightly since the school board passed the tuition policy, Mr. Hopkins said, and no students have paid the tuition so far.

Mr. Griffith of Decatur, Ga., said the financial gain for throwing out nonresident students is not always cut and dried.

The state pays for 48 percent of a child's education in his district, he pointed out. "So putting them out will cost us $1,800 per year per child," he said. "However, when you're filling up, another kid or two could cost you another teacher."

Enforcing residency requirements is also time-consuming and potentially costly. "The drumbeating and rattling of the cage will cause some parents to say, 'I'm not going to risk it,"' Mr. Griffith said. "But there's got to be a point where it costs too much."

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