- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

Montgomery County, Md., public school officials are requiring parents of eighth-graders to prove their residency in an unprecedented effort to stop border crossers from illegally enrolling in county schools.

Today is the last day for parents of eighth-graders to submit documents such as lease agreements, property-tax bills, utility or telephone bills and credit-card bills to prove their residency. County officials began the effort in March and, as of last Friday, were still waiting for 30 percent of the county’s roughly 11,000 eighth-graders to produce proof of residency.

“We don’t want to be punitive, and the last thing we want to do is keep children out of school,” said Katherine D. Harrison, a spokeswoman for the county school system. “On the other hand, there is considerable reason to believe that substantial numbers of students do not live in the county. The schools are funded by taxpayers who live in the county, and that’s the way the system works.”

Maryland school residency law requires parents to pay full tuition for their children to attend school in a different county. It also requires schools to verify students’ residency, but large numbers of parents beat the system by falsifying their addresses, officials said.

“We get reports of parents with non-Maryland license plates dropping off their kids and ‘no person there’ replies to mailings,” Ms. Harrison said. “It doesn’t mean the parents don’t live there, but it raises concerns.”

Thelma C. Smith, principal of Gaithersburg Middle School, said students living temporarily with grandparents or other relatives are the most likely to escape detection.

“We do have a few students who matriculated from the elementary school that may have slipped through the cracks,” Mrs. Smith said. “But we catch most people.”

Although most of her school’s 775 students live in the county, she said her staff each year catches about four or five families breaking the residency law.

“We typically catch people when they don’t respond to mailings,” Mrs. Smith said. “At that point, they either provide the documentation or withdraw from the school.”

Montgomery officials did not have data on how many students are illegally enrolled in county schools.

Joyce Jones, an enrollment official with the Prince George’s County schools, said illegal enrollment is a serious problem in Maryland’s larger school districts.

During a 11/2-year investigation from 1997 to 1999, Ms. Jones said she found that 60 percent of students in county schools lived outside Prince George’s. Many, she said, were illegally avoiding tuition fees.

“Sometimes parents will actually present proof of residency, and they still don’t live in the jurisdiction,” Ms. Jones said. “They change their pay stubs, bank statements and car insurance papers to a relative’s residence.”

More recent figures for Prince George’s County are not available, because officials conduct enforcement on a school-by-school basis, Ms. Jones said. She added that the percentage of the county’s border crossers “is probably the same, if not worse” as it was five years ago.

“It’s certainly not uncommon” for parents to try breaking the residency law, said Jeani Haven, principal of Takoma Park Middle School.

“There’s generally no formal check between elementary and middle school,” Mrs. Haven said. “They can be living in the county for elementary school, then move away and still list their county address.”

Still, Mrs. Haven said “very few” of her school’s 1,000 students do not live within Takoma Park’s jurisdiction.

Eighth-graders who do not meet today’s deadline will be asked to pay full tuition or face not entering high school this fall. The current school year ends June 15.

Tuition this year for nonresidents was about $10,000 for grades six through 12, according to Laura Steinberg, the school system’s coordinator for quality assurance and compliance.

“It’s costly to educate students in Montgomery County,” she said. “Tuition-fee enrollment is based on parents’ bona fide residence.”

The fact that parents commute from out-of-county “speaks to the strength of the programs we offer,” Ms. Steinberg added.

“If you have just 10 kids breaking the law, you’re talking $100,000 in lost tuition,” said Mrs. Smith. “This is money that could be used on textbooks or teachers’ salaries, so it’s an issue.”

Past and current members of the D.C. Board of Education said area parents have reasons for illegally shuttling their children between jurisdictions.

“Parents want success and effective teaching,” said former board member Angela King Corley. “This is not new to any jurisdiction. If you have a superior-performing student body, most people are aware [the students] are superior.”

Board member Julie Mikuta said: “We know we’ve got students crossing jurisdictional boundaries in all directions, but it’s improved in the last couple years. The city is aware of the problem and it’s working on it.”

Border crossing between Montgomery County and other school districts “probably happen both ways,” said former board member Robert A. Peck. “I hope neither side is spending too much money trying to root out border crossers.”

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