A New Jersey School District Gets Strict About Residency

A New Jersey School District Gets Strict About Residency
September 10, 2000

ENGLEWOOD, N.J., Sept. 8— For years, the Englewood School District has spent thousands of dollars in a court fight to create a school intended to draw students from wealthier communities. Now it is going to great lengths to weed out students from outside its boundaries.

There is no proof that students from outside the district are enrolled here. And school officials say privately that the district's low test scores are not much of an inducement for students to enroll here illegally. But largely because of complaints from an influential citizens' group, the school district over the last half-year has insisted that all families reregister their children.

The school board acted after conceding that the district had not been consistent in the last few years in asking all new parents in the district for proof of residency.

Even parents whose children have been attending Englewood schools for years had to present documentation, including deeds, tax returns and utility bills, to prove that they lived where they said they did. If they did not, district officials said, their children would not be allowed in school, and they would owe past tuition.

When school began Wednesday, officials said they ''disenrolled'' about 300 students whose parents had failed to properly reregister them. Total enrollment in the district's five schools is 2,665.

Officials said they did not know whether any of the students whose parents had failed to enroll them had showed up, but if so, the students would not be turned away immediately. Parents will have 21 days to prove residency, and during that time students will be allowed to stay.

School officials said the action did not mean that all 300 were enrolled improperly. Many could be students who had moved or graduated.

It costs the district $8,000 to $10,000 to educate each child, so it could get a considerable benefit from the new policy, officials said.

''We will go after anyone in the community who we feel owes us money because their children didn't belong here,'' said William Anderson, president of the school board.

Every year, schools all over the New York region, especially those in wealthier districts where students perform well on tests, go to great lengths to make sure parents who live outside the district are not sneaking children in. The New Jersey School Boards Association estimates that 8,000 to 10,000 students in the state are attending schools that are not legally in their districts.

''When parents sneak their children into a district, it burdens the taxpayers who are paying to educate those children,'' said Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the group. ''Even if you've got only four students sneaking into your schools, that could mean the cost of a full-time teacher right there.''

Some districts hire private investigators to make sure parents live where they say they do, or have truant officers double-check student addresses, Mr. Yaple said. He has even heard of districts offering bounties for information on parents who are illegally sending their children to schools outside their districts.

But state officials say they are unaware of any other district that has made all parents reregister and show proof of residency.

''People were very reluctant, of course, to show us all that documentation,'' said Mark A. Tabakin, a lawyer whose firm has been hired by the district to process the reregistration.

Board members agreed to conduct the residency audit after complaints from the Englewood Homeowners Association, a persistent and vocal group whose members, many of whom do not send their children to the public schools, keep constant watch on how the district and the city spend their property tax revenues.

''Nobody in Englewood who can afford to send their children to parochial or private schools sends their children to the public schools here,'' said Eugenia Maria Vogel, the co-president of the homeowners association. ''These schools are horrid.

''This school district has a budget of $39 million,'' she said. ''We want the money wisely spent in the classroom, in teachers, in other good programs so that people don't have to mortgage their homes to get a good education.''

Mrs. Vogel, whose 12-year-old daughter attends a private school, said her group called for the audit after hearing complaints from several parents about children who were causing problems in the schools but who did not live in the district. She said she had no proof of out-of-district enrollment.

The board agreed to an audit last year, and hired an accounting firm for $30,000 to begin notifying all parents of the new requirement. If they did not respond within a certain period, they were sent follow-up letters and given more time to comply.

At a meeting last weekcalled to consider the residency question, Mr. Tabakin, the district's lawyer, greeted people whose names were on a list of those who had not responded to the letters. School board members waited upstairs, prepared to meet with parents if they requested a special hearing.

Five parents showed up that night, and Mr. Tabakin dicussed their situations with them privately. After showing him documentation, all five were allowed to reregister their children. Two of the parents said they were responding only now to letters from the district because they had been working and did not have time.

''It's good that they're checking,'' said Denise Wilkins, who works as a baby sitter and has a 13-year-old in the eighth grade here. ''Somebody told me there were kids here coming from Hackensack. I had already shown them my driver's license, but I needed to show them something else, so I brought a utility bill.''

Map of New Jersey shows the location of Englewood: Englewood is a relatively poor school district with low scores.

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