Nonresident students not just Norwalk’s problem

Enrolling a child in public school isn’t as simple as driving up to a school, handing over a lunch box and sending the child on his or her way.

Parents must provide more than one proof of residency—a copy of their driver’s license, a copy of a current utility bill or a mortgage statement for instance. Although school officials are on their guard for children from outside their district enrolling in their schools, year after year some children find their way in.

“I don’t know what the motivation is sometimes for people to try to use another school district that they shouldn’t be,” Region 16 Superintendent of Schools James Agostine.

The issue is one school officials deal with each school year with little public attention paid to the matter. That all changed in April, when 33-year-old Tanya McDowell, a homeless single mother, was arrested and charged with using her baby sitter’s Norwalk address to wrongfully register her son in a Norwalk school. McDowell was charged with stealing $15,686 of educational services, which is based on the 2010 average cost per-pupil for a Norwalk and is facing larceny charges. She is due again in court on June 7.

McDowell’s arrest made national headlines—more for the charges against her then the issue of her son being enrolled in a district where he didn’t live. McDowell’s son was among 26 students found to be illegally enrolled in Norwalk schools, but she was the only one charged with a crime.

While the spotlight is centered on Norwalk, the issue of students being enrolled in school districts where they don’t live isn’t isolated to the city by the shore.

“We do see a few,” said Naugatuck Superintendent of Schools John Tindall-Gibson about out-of-district students enrolling in borough schools. “We’ve been trying to be vigilant about that.”

Details on the number of nonresident students caught in Naugatuck schools were unavailable as of press time. Tindall-Gibson referred questions to central office staff, who could not be reached.

Agostine said four families were asked to leave the Region 16 school district last year, and the district was working on three cases this school year. The children tend to come from towns bordering the district, including Naugatuck, Seymour and Waterbury, he said.

Agostine said there are plenty of red flags, such as letters marked returned to sender, to tip off administrators. To help get to the bottom of suspicious cases, he said, the district hires a private investigator.

McDowell’s case focuses on the financial impact of the issue, and it can cost districts thousands of dollars to educate children whose parents aren’t paying taxes for their education. According to the 2008-2009 strategic school profiles, the most recent one on the state Department of Education’s website, Naugatuck’s per pupil cost was $12,286 a year, while Region 16 spent $11,230 on each student.

However, Tindall-Gibson and Agostine said the problem goes beyond financial ramifications.

“It can impact us in a lot of different ways,” Tindall-Gibson said.

Tindall-Gibson said the district could face athletic sanctions if an out-of-district student plays sports for the borough. He added that some children could potentially be undesirable influences to local students.

Since parents lied about where they live, Agostine said, the district might not be able to get in touch with them in case of an emergency or a student can be dropped off at a wrong address.

One or two children can throw off grade levels enrollments and force the district to rearrange classes and hire more teachers.

“It does become problematic,” Agostine said.

It is up to local boards of education to enforce the residency rules. Locally, there have been no cases that anyone could remember that have gone as far as the Norwalk incident.

Agostine said if a parent is caught wrongfully enrolling their child in the district they are sent a letter and asked to disenroll the child. In most cases, he said, they do and everyone moves on.

Tindall-Gibson said there was one case a couple of years ago that was brought to police attention. But, he said, the case was eventually dropped.

There is no uniformity to how the issue is handled in school districts across the state. However, that’s not the case in other states.

Tindall-Gibson pointed to Rhode Island where, he explained, each school district has a truancy officer. If a student is caught in a district where the child shouldn’t be enrolled in, he continued, they are brought before Rhode Islands education commissioner for a hearing within days.

Although no local cases have gone as far as criminal charges, that doesn’t mean parents who wrongfully enroll their children don’t open themselves up to financial liability.

Region 16’s affidavit of residency states that the district may collect reimbursement for the expense of educating their child.