- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

FREEHOLD, N.J. (AP) - As he sits in an office in Freehold, private investigator Jimmie Mesis has at his fingertips the names and addresses of people he says are committing fraud across New Jersey and the nation.

They may be typical soccer moms and hard-working parents, but they are fabricating documents or lying about where they live, to get their children into schools outside their own area.

Last year, taxpayers spent more than $19,000 to educate the average public school student in New Jersey, and most of those costs were borne through local property taxes.

Parents who fake their addresses can cost school districts tens of thousands of dollars while not contributing to local school taxes. As class sizes in public schools rise and schools struggle to control costs, Mesis expects that more districts will work harder to root out students who fake residency.

“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,” he told the Asbury Park Press (http://on.app.com/1KQiP2X). “Fraud is fraud.”

This “boundary hopping” happens in both large and small communities. Even small districts like Beach Haven School are affected, said the school’s superintendent, EvaMarie Raleigh.

“We’re way down the barrier island,” she said. “A lot of parents who work in businesses, say restaurants and shops at the end of the island, want their children to go to school where they’re working.”

In Beach Haven, which has fewer than 100 students, one to two students a year are caught with fake addresses, Raleigh said. Beach Haven School is a “choice school,” which means the school accepts students from other districts to fill empty desks, but parents have to apply in advance for one of a limited number of openings.

“It’s a weird situation, because we want high enrollments, but we have to follow our policy,” Raleigh said.

Parents and students who fake their addresses for school are breaking the law. Mesis, who owns VerifyResidence.com, is hired by districts to comb their databases for students with false addresses and conflicting personal information. Some of his discoveries lead private investigators to stake out homes of families suspected of living elsewhere.

The New Jersey School Boards Association does not track of how many cases of boundary-hopping happen annually, but it is a common problem.

So far this year, the state Commissioner of Education has heard nine cases in which school districts say parents had lied about their addresses.

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.

Not all of New Jersey’s residency cases end up favoring the school district.

North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School District sought to recoup $277,410 from two parents who lived in the Netherlands for years on a temporary work assignment while their son, who had complicated medical and developmental disabilities, lived in a hospital paid for by the school district. Because the couple never sold their home nor planned to stay in the Netherlands, the state Commissioner of Education and an Administrative Law judge ruled in the parents’ favor.

Mesis sees a variety of reasons that parents or students fake their own addresses. Perhaps the parents have moved but want to keep their child in the former district. Maybe they live in a district with poorly performing schools and want a better education for their children. Maybe they work far from home and find it more convenient to enroll their children in a school district closer to their jobs.

“You’ll find that this (boundary hopping) is extremely common,” said Mesis. “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.”

Some students also try switching schools to gain a competitive advantage in sports, a practice that is strongly discouraged by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Students who play varsity sports and switch schools without changing addresses must sit out of their sport for 30 days, according to NJSIAA rules. But if the NJSIAA finds evidence that a transfer happened with the aim of giving a student competitive advantage, the organization takes stiffer action.

For example, in March a Mount St. Dominick Academy student who transferred to West Orange High School was barred from participating in track for a year by the NJSIAA, which said the student made the transfer for the purpose of joining a superior track team and gaining access to West Orange’s track coach.

Boundary-hopping costs schools thousands of dollars in tuition money, so districts have a strong incentive to remove students who do not live within their borders.

In New Jersey, “we (estimate on) average a minimum of half of 1 percent are out of district,” Mesis said.

If his estimations hold true across the state, that means more than 7,000 of New Jersey’s 1.4 million public school students are sneaking their way into schools where they don’t belong. Local taxpayers could be shouldering $133 million in per-pupil spending in districts that shouldn’t have to bear those costs.

To prevent boundary-hopping, school districts are not only hiring private investigators but are adopting stringent registration practices.

In Jackson schools, employees require parents to provide sworn statements and multiple proofs of residency. The district also requires parents sign a form acknowledging that lying about residency is a third-degree crime in New Jersey, punishable with up to $7,500 in fines or up to five years in jail.

In addition, Jackson employs its own in-house residency fraud investigator, attendance officer Clifford Menafra, said school spokeswoman Allison Erwin.

Rarely are parents able to fake residency during the registration process, Erwin said. The most common scenario in Jackson is that parents move after enrollment and try to keep their children in the township’s schools, she said.

“At the end of the day, only people who are . supporting the property taxes of Jackson Township should be sending their children to Jackson Township schools,” Erwin said. “It’s in the best interest of the taxpayer to ensure that only students who are eligible go here.”

Photo editing software has been a boon to parents looking to forge documents such as utility and tax bills, Mesis said.

“The (old) way that the schools find out about this is that a school bus driver or a kid will say something in school,” he said. “That’s all based on tips.”

Instead of relying on tips, Mesis audits up to 50,000 names and addresses in 72 hours. Sometimes his searches return imperfect results; for example, parents who divorce make determining the child’s real address more difficult.

Mesis’ database findings can trigger private investigators to monitor a house, watching to see if the child and parent are leaving in the mornings before school.

“The towns will actually send us out to do surveillance, and we’ll videotape anyone coming out of the house in the morning,” he said.

That evidence can end up deciding the outcomes of lawsuits, like the ones heard by the commissioner of education.

“Many parents will fight you to the very, very end,” said Mesis. “You can’t fake the information that I have access to. And that’s why you have to use technology to beat people who are trying to commit fraud.”

Though technology is making both faking addresses and getting caught easier, district-hopping is nothing new.

A 68-year-old Ocean Township woman remembers staying put in her Jersey City high school after her parents moved to a different section of the city.

“This was in 1962,” she said, and asked not to be named to protect her identity. “Did we do something illegal? Yeah, in the scheme of things.”

In her senior year of high school, she ran into her homeroom teacher in the neighborhood where she lived, but the teacher never mentioned the issue to school administrators, she said.

“I guess I never thought I was doing anything wrong,” she recalled. “I went on to graduate, and nobody was the wiser.”

Today’s schools are taking a much more active role in rooting out students who are not entitled to attend.

“It adds up,” said Mesis. “It’s a dirty little area of life that people don’t realize exists, but school administrators have to deal with this on a daily basis.”

___

Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, http://www.app.com

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