FREEHOLD, N.J. – A New Jersey news site is highlighting a growing “problem” with parents who fudge enrollment documents to send their children to schools outside of their home districts.
The Asbury Park Press recently spoke with private investigator Jimmie Mesis, who earns a living tracking down parents who commit “fraud” against school districts by using fake addresses and documents to enroll their children in better schools.
“Taxpayers want to make sure that they’re paying for kids who live in their town and they’re not subsidizing kids who live in another town,” Mesis told the site. “Fraud is fraud.”
The problem stems from imaginary geographic boundaries that trap students in specific school districts or schools that do not take into consideration academic performance or student needs. In New Jersey, schools receive about $19,000 per student through local property taxes, and state and federal funding, and school officials are employing investigators like Mesis to root out “boundary hoppers.”
In fact, Mesis has built an entire business – called VerifyResidence.com – around busting parents who live in one school district but send their children to another, according to the news site.
“You’ll find that this is extremely common,” Mesis said. “It’s a problem that every school district has if you’re a good town. If you’re a lousy town, no one wants to go to school in your district.”
The Asbury Park Press reports that parents are motivated to cheat the system for a lot of different reasons, from access to better sports programs to the convenience of enrolling students in districts in where they work, but the biggest reason is academic.
And it’s not just a “problem” in New Jersey.
Philadelphia parents Hamlet and Olesia Garcia were arrested in 2012 and charged with stealing $11,000 in educational services from the Lower Moreland Township School District. The Olesias allegedly lived in Philadelphia but used a relative’s address to send their child to Lower Moreland schools, EAGnews reported at the time.
While the reason was obvious – 89 percent of Lower Moreland students read at or above grade level versus only 14 percent in Philadelphia schools – the Montgomery County District Attorney pursed criminal charges against the couple.
“These defendants essentially stole from every hard-working taxpayer who resides within the Lower Moreland School District by lying about the true location of their home,” district attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said in a statement.
Other examples include Kelley Williams-Bolar of Ohio, who was jailed in January 2011 for falsifying residency records to send her children to the Copley-Fairlawn district. The ordeal earned Williams-Bolar a felony conviction, ending her dream of becoming a teacher.
Marie Menard of Connecticut was arrested in October 2010 for illegally enrolling her grandsons in the Stratford school district, and she was ordered to pay a $30,000 fine or face a felony charge.
A Philly.com editorial pointed out the obvious fact that these types of cases “cry out for a voucher system that would allow middle-class and poorer parents to escape substandard public schools and use their tax dollars to get the best education for their kids.”
But for now, investigators like Mesis and most public school officials are fixed on keeping certain students locked out of better schools, and they’re pursuing all avenues to ensure as much per-pupil funding as possible.
Investigators are staking out parents’ homes, combing through enrollment records to root out possible cheats, and suing parents when possible to recover the “stolen” educational services.
“Some school districts, like West Orange’s, are using residency investigators to recoup thousands of dollars in tuition from families where students pretend to live in the township. West Orange Public Schools won a case in August seeking $10,366.72, or $92.56 per day, in tuition reimbursement from the parent of a student who moved to Newark in January but didn’t transfer out,” according to the Press.
Meanwhile, education reform advocates continue to press lawmakers to create a better system that fosters competition between schools that would inevitably improve the quality of education for all students, regardless of their zip codes.
“There is great momentum for school choice because Democratic and Republican policymakers around the country are recognizing what parents already know – that all options should be on the table to give kids, who are trapped in perpetually underperforming schools, an immediate path to a quality education,” said Kevin Chavous, senior advisor to the American Federation of Children.