Crossing School District Lines
How often do kids attend schools in other areas?
Last September, Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, a fierce guardian of the public dollar, declared war on boundary hoppers.
“We had a lot of people sneaking into the school district by giving false addresses,” says Polisena. “It costs $17,000 to educate one non-special education student in Johnston. They are stealing from the taxpayers.”
He attempted to bar a Kentucky family living in a Johnston motel from registering their children. Then, “guesstimating” that some 200 to 300 children were illegally enrolled in Johnston schools, Polisena pushed through an ordinance that exacted stiff penalties on property owners who falsely claimed a child’s residency for school enrollment purposes: permanent revocation of the homestead tax exemption — a 20 percent rebate for owner-occupied dwellings — and a bill for any previous years the exemption was wrongly claimed, plus the cost of the child’s tuition in Johnston Public Schools.
The Town Council unanimously passed the ordinance that October. The legislation did little to drive down Johnston’s school population. Superintendent Bernard DiLullo says that his enrollment figures of 3,100 students have remained steady. And no one, as yet, has been presented with a tuition bill.
“Are we completely cured?” Polisena says. “Absolutely not. I’m sure some people are ripping off the system, but we will catch them eventually.”
At least one resident lost the homestead exemption. Town Council Vice President Stephanie Manzi and her husband claimed Johnston residency to get the tax break. But Paul Manzi also said he lived in Narragansett, where the Manzis had a small summer cottage, so they could enroll their children at Narragansett High School.
In March, Manzi was the subject of an investigation by independent journalist Jim Hummel, who followed the councilwoman and her children “many times” over the course of two months, as she drove her sons in the morning rush hour from their Johnston residence to Narragansett High School. Manzi, who is also a dean at Roger Williams University School of Justice Studies, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But in an interview she could not avoid, Manzi told Hummel:
“Well, my kids wanted to go to a small school, it’s a much smaller school, they’ve been going to a small school since Brown Avenue, when they went to St. Philip’s.”
Where do you live? That’s an easy answer for many. But for families of school-aged children with no home or multiple homes, or families roiled by divorce, illness or economic distress, or families seeking a better education for their children, the residency question can be fraught.
Rhode Island law states that a child must be enrolled in the school system of the city or town where he or she resides, as determined by the parents’ residency. When the marriage is riven, the residence of the custodial parent takes precedence. There are exceptions for children who move during the school year; they can finish the semester in their old districts. Rising seniors and seniors also can wrap up their last year in their old districts. The law makes provisions for children in the care of a guardian or in the state’s child welfare system, and for children living in homes that straddle two communities.
Homeless children are protected by a federal law that ensures educational continuity for children in temporary housing, and allows them to be educated in their school district of origin — even if they are living in a shelter elsewhere.
Polisena’s bluster at the Kentucky family prompted the Rhode Island ACLU to fire off a letter to Education Commissioner Kenneth Wagner asking for an intervention. In 2013, the state Department of Education rebuked Johnston for attempting to unilaterally and illegally remove two homeless students from the district, and appointed a “special visitor” to assist Johnston school officials in bringing their practices into compliance with state and federal laws.
“These things come up rarely, but they do come up,” says Jim Ryczek, outgoing executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. “We’ve had to educate some superintendents.”
Other communities have drawn an equally hard line against boundary hopping. At least six states and Washington, D.C., have laws criminalizing falsely claiming residency for school purposes with prison terms, fines or repayment of tuition.
In 2009, a mother of four in Rochester, New York, pleaded guilty to filing a false document to enroll her children in an adjacent district with better schools. She was sentenced to three months of probation and 100 hours of community service. In 2011, an Akron, Ohio, teacher’s aide was convicted of falsifying records and sentenced to ten days in county jail.
Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, says that such instances are rare.
“The majority of school districts don’t take legal action, but they do it as an example, or as a preemptive measure, rather than to punish,” Domenech says. “The problem is in the inequity and that quality of education you receive is dependent on your zip code.”
Generally, state and federal aid provide 55 percent of the per pupil cost, with the rest borne by local property taxpayers.
“We need to make sure that we are making a direct correlation between people paying property taxes and those people who go to school in the district,” says East Greenwich Public Schools Superintendent Victor Mercurio.
In East Greenwich, a top-ranked, small district, the problem is minimal. But in some communities the financial burden of non-resident students is substantial. Cranston Public Schools employs a retired police officer part-time to investigate residency. In a twelve-month period from July 2015, the district undertook 378 residency investigations and determined that ninety students were wrongly enrolled in Cranston schools. With a per-pupil base cost of $13,000, that’s nearly $1.2 million.
“We’ve had excuses like, ‘oh, we’re just there temporarily,’ ‘the child doesn’t get along with their mother or father,’ or ‘that’s my boyfriend’s house,’ ” says Cranston Schools Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse. “Everybody has a reason and a little part of me takes pride in the fact that people would go to such great lengths to come to our schools.”
But most superintendents regard the residency issue as a headache. In 2013, North Providence Public Schools Superintendent Melinda Smith instituted a formal process to ferret out non-resident students, mostly coming from the less prosperous border communities of Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls. Last year, the district’s full-time truancy-residency investigator examined fifty cases — and that’s after Smith had personally reviewed each registration packet.
“It’s a cumbersome process to register, and I’ve read enough of them to sense when something’s odd about the form,” Smith says. “It could be a full-time job for me to monitor residency.”
Districts generally learn about students who actually live outside the city limits from anonymous tips about students being dropped off at bus stops or mailers that get returned. Once a district establishes actual residency, officials will inform the family that it must register the student elsewhere and assist in transferring records to the student’s home school. Most simply go, but some parents take the dispute to a higher authority.
Residency is among the most common hearing topics, says state Department of Education spokesman Elliot Krieger. Between 1988 and 2014, the Commissioner of Education adjudicated some 182 residency disputes. The cases run the gamut from common conflicts involving children who are homeless, living with family friends, or in state care placements to more exotic controversies like the owners of a home located in Swansea, save for five square feet in Barrington, who argued in 2003 that their child was entitled to enroll in Barrington schools. They lost.
“It doesn’t do for someone to have a summer house and send the kids to that district. It has to be the primary residence. How do you determine that? Well, it is tricky,” Krieger says.
Narragansett did not challenge the residency of the Manzi children, but the episode clearly gave Superintendent Katherine Sipala major agita. By the school year’s end, the clotted skeins of residency for the various members of the Manzi family had completely unraveled.
The Manzis returned the $1,700 they took from the homestead exemption to the town. Paul Manzi changed his voter’s registration to Narragansett. The family put their Johnston home on the market and Town Council Vice President Stephanie Manzi did not seek re-election, having apparently decided to relocate the whole family under one roof — in Narragansett.