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Cracking Down On Nonresident Students

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As a parent, Don Griffith understands why some might choose 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 superintendent of the Decatur city school district in Georgia, Griffith is pulling out all the stops to prevent families from doing so.

Like many other school officials across the country, the superintendent says he is being pressured by the public to expel nonresident students who are attending district schools without paying tuition.

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. In most, the enrollment barriers between districts are becoming stronger.

"The community has the perception that we're overrun with out-of-zone students,'' Griffith says. "My feeling is we're not. But this year, I've been very methodical about finding out about them and evicting them.''

Public pressure in Decatur has edged school officials into a strategy that other districts have also adopted: hiring private investigators to ferret out freeloaders. Some districts have gone so far as to offer monetary rewards for tips about nonresident students. One New Jersey system has even sued more than a dozen parents for what they owe in back tuition.

Parents, meanwhile, are matching districts' tenacity. While some have withdrawn their children from schools they were attending illegally or paid the tuition that districts charge nonresidents, others have stepped up their efforts to find a way around the system. "They're tremendously clever at getting over the barricades,'' says William Gold, the lawyer handling the lawsuit against parents in the South Orange-Maplewood, N.J., district.

Supporters of such crackdowns 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,'' Gold says. "If the kid needs a better education, parents shouldn't steal it for him.''

Students crossing district boundaries to attend school can cost a district thousands of dollars. In New Jersey alone, districts spend some $8 million to $10 million a year educating students who do not live within their boundaries, according to the state's school boards association. That kind of expenditure led the Clifton, N.J., schools to offer $100 rewards to anyone who turns in a nonresident student. "But most people who call in don't ask for money,'' says Barry Mascari, a district official.

Like most school systems, Clifton's first line of defense is requiring students who are registering to show proof of residency--usually a birth certificate, tax document, housing lease, or gas, phone, or electric bill. A few years ago, Mascari says, the district reorganized its registration system so that all students must deal with one person who clears their proof of residence. In addition, it uses five part-time investigators who have checked up on the residency of nearly 100 of the system's 8,500 students so far this school year.

District officials keep an eye out for certain signs that might indicate a student is slipping into the district illegally. They watch, for example, to see if any students are regularly dropped off by car rather than bus or if mail from the school comes back marked "return to sender.'' But many families are so complex and chaotic, Mascari says, that it is difficult to determine whether a child is legally residing in the district. Some parents, he says, go to great lengths to feign residency.

In New Jersey's South Orange-Maplewood district, which has a good reputation, officials are awaiting the outcome of a 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,'' Gold says. 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.

Some parents have contested the claims, and Gold is doubtful that the district will recover the money anytime soon, if ever. But the suit, he says, sends a message: "If you're going to send your kids to another district, don't send them here because we're going to catch you.''

School officials in Teton County, Wyo., also have an eye out for students crossing the border from the Idaho county that shares its name. Superintendent Sarah Smith says some parents prefer the Wyoming district's uncrowded classrooms and above-average math and science programs. Others send their children to school there for athletic training in Jackson's world-class recreational areas. Still others commute from Idaho to the Jackson area to work, and they want their children nearby during the day. But the school district, Smith says, "is 100 percent funded by local taxes'' and cannot afford to support children from outside the county or state.

Faced with a tuition bill of about $6,000 a year, several Idaho parents are considering a drastic solution--transferring guardianship of their children to residents of Teton County, Wyo.

Griffith of Decatur notes that throwing out nonresident students does not always benefit districts financially. The state of Georgia, for example, pays for 48 percent of a child's education in his district. "So putting them out will cost us $1,800 per year per child,'' he says. "However, when you're filling up, another kid or two could cost you another teacher.''

Residency enforcement is also a time-consuming and expensive matter. "The drumbeating and rattling of the cage will cause some parents to say, 'I'm not going to risk it,' '' Griffith says. "But there's got to be a point where it costs too much.''

--Laura Miller

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