UPDATED: Board of Ed Debates Tuition Reimbursement
Members disagree on how district should pursue the issue of non-resident students.
8/31 Update from the South Orange-Maplewood School District: Since the July residency report, 21 of the removed students and 7 of the siblings have proven residency and re-enrolled, according to a memo the district released today. The memo is attached as a PDF to this article.
The remaining 8 families will not be re-enrolled until they can prove their residency.
"We expect to know by October 15 whether any of these families will prove residency," said district communications director Suzanne Turner. That is the state deadline for schools to report a "snapshot" of enrollment numbers.
South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education members continue to be concerned about students attending their schools who live out of district – but they can’t seem to agree on how to remedy the situation.
At Monday’s school board meeting, members held a lengthy discussion on whether it was cost-effective to pursue students who live out of district, and whether it was ethical to seek tuition payments from parents who may not be able to afford them.
“It does not make any sense to me that we would ever collect enough money from students who are here who might live in another town to offset taxpayer burden,” said Board Member Andrea Wren-Hardin, chair of the facilities committee. The main problem, she said, is that “students throughout the state are not receiving a thorough and efficient education. That’s what this is about.”
Some board members said students from other towns – whose parents believe they are receiving a substandard education – enroll in local schools.
“If students in Irvington or Newark…were receiving the education that they needed and deserved to have, their parents would not be enrolling them in the South Orange/Maplewood School District,” Wren-Hardin said. She also said she didn’t want to “punish” children or families who “do not have money in the bank" to pay tuition.
Last year, one of the ways the district tried to confirm residency was to conduct a re-registration of tenth graders. In July, the district reported that out of the 497 students in the 10th grade, five withdrew, five lost their hearings, and another 29 did not comply with the re-registration. Another 11 siblings of the students were not registered. Those 29 students and their 11 siblings were removed by board resolution for failing to reregister. Osborne deemed the reregistration a success.
On Monday night, Wren-Hardin reported that among a board committee’s goals for the new year were to: continue targeted re-registration, collaborate with South Orange and Maplewood municipalities to deter residency violations, and pursue tuition reimbursement where fiscally prudent. There was no concensus on these goals.
Wren-Hardin said she supports continuing re-registration efforts and working with municipalities, but, she said, "I can’t further kick someone when they’re already down.” She also cautioned that is is "misguided" to focus on re-registration at the expense of focusing on the achievement gap.
But Board Member Lynne Crawford responded, “How many of the students involved in the achievement gap are students that don’t belong in the district?” She noted that in her nine years on the board the district had removed between 100-300 students from the rolls, with each student accounting for a minimum of $10,000 in tuition to the district.
“How much time is spent on students coming from districts where they haven’t gotten the proper education, so our teachers now have to spend time working with those students to increase their reading levels, at the expense of our children, for the $27,000 in taxes that we’re paying,” said Crawford. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t agree with you.”
Crawford said, “We’ve got to go after the landlords who are allowing (people) to commit the fraud and we have to go after parents who are committing the fraud by bringing their children here and registering them at our expense.”
"I don’t want anyone in any way to think I’m starting a campaign to have students in other districts come to SOM, that’s not my point," Wren-Hardin clarified. She noted that the district would continue to use the tips hotline, residency hearings, cooperation with other towns and re-registration.
Board member David Giles voiced concern about student privacy issues and creating an adversarial relationship between district employees and families. Wayne Eastman, who chairs the Finance & Technology Committee, said the policy was "legitimate" and that it is the right decision "as a matter of politics, practicality and ethics to cooperate with towns."
"Let's make sure we are doing everything that is legitimately in our power (although) student privacy is paramount," said Board president Beth Daugherty. She noted that pursuing tuition reimbursement could be a deterrent "to send a message of 'don't try to get away with it to begin with.'"
Board member Jeffrey Bennett noted that other districts, including Montclair, pursue tuition reimbursement. Board member Bill Gaudelli suggested the district explore reimbursement from the state "for its legal and ethical obligation for these students."
At the end of the discussion, the board decided not to change the language of the goals until a final vote at next month's meeting.