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Addressing Non-Resident Students in Our Schools

Are there significant numbers of non-resident students in the School District of South Orange and Maplewood? According to our Superintendent Brian Osborne, the answer is yes.

Are there significant numbers of non-resident students in the School District of South Orange and Maplewood?  According to our Superintendent Brian Osborne, the answer is yes. 

Last week, the School District reported on the re-registration of the 10th grade class at Columbia High School.  The District reported that out of the 497 students in the 10th grade class, 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.  Given the reasonable assumption that the 29 who did not comply live outside of Maplewood and South Orange (we will know more after the school year starts), there were a total of 39 out of 497 students in the 10th grade not domiciled in the District.  That represents around 7.8% of the 10th grade class, a number that Superintendent Osborne called “significant”. Jessica de Koninck, attorney for the District, referred to the results as “big numbers”.

The results of the re-registration raise a number of difficult issues for our community.  With the average homeowner’s tax bill exceeding $10,000 a year, property taxes in Maplewood and South Orange are among the highest in the Nation.  Nearly 60% of our local property taxes go towards the school budget.  So, the fact that a significant number of non-resident students are attending our schools, and using resources meant for local kids, is upsetting to many residents.

At the same time, the schools in the neighboring communities of Irvington and Newark, where many of these non-resident students presumably come from, do not offer the quality of education that we do (despite spending a considerable amount more per student).  So it is understandable why a family in Irvington or Newark would be tempted into sneaking their child into our schools for a better future.  Understandable, but not acceptable.

 

For every non-resident student that is seeking a better education, there are many more local kids who are struggling academically.  Among our local students, we have persistent racial and gender academic achievement gaps that we haven’t overcome.  This must be our first priority.

One way to have a common-sense reasonable approach to enforcement would be to allow resident tips and information about non-resident students.  In fact, the District has a hotline for residents to call with information about ineligible students.  973-762-5600, ext. 1749.

But signs from some members of the School Board are not encouraging. The Superintendent’s report on the re-registration gave rise to a Board of Education debate on whether the District’s hotline should be prominent or not on the website.  One Board member, Bill Gaudelli, said he did not want a hotline at all, because among other reasons, only a few calls had been reported.  Another member, Andrea Wren-Hardin, also suggested that she did not want a prominent hotline, questioning what kind of message it was sending.  Other Board members, including Board President Beth Daugherty, supported a hotline, but did not believe it needed to be on the main page.  Board members Wayne Eastman and Lynne Crawford wanted a prominently displayed hotline number.

As a result of this discussion, the hotline ended up being buried on the registration page of the District’s website.  You can see it here, if you look closely enough.  Tellingly, in contrast to the speed of this website change, the District still has an old outdated photo on its website that includes Board members who are no longer on the Board of Education.

And so, a possibly effective way to get information to school officials about non-resident students has been cut off.  This is not what most residents have in mind when they elect Board members to help manage our School District’s financial health. 

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to walk around a number of neighborhoods in Maplewood and South Orange and talk to residents.  I was surprised to learn, from the conversations I’ve had, that homeowners in the stereotypically less affluent areas of our towns – such as the Hilton neighborhood in Maplewood – tend to be most concerned about this issue.  To the residents I spoke with, the issue was one of basic fairness.  Why live in Maplewood or South Orange if they could simply move a few streets over, pay less in taxes, and still send their children to the schools?

Respect for taxpayers requires that we act to prevent non-resident students from attending our schools.  We need common-sense reasonable approaches, such as a publicized and accessible hotline, re-registration of more grades at the start of each year, and, where permitted by law, actions against any landlords who aid and abet fraudulent registrations.  As the Superintendent’s report makes clear, the issue of non-resident students is not going away.  What we need right now from the Board of Education is an acknowledgment of the problem, and a commitment to address the issue.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Lando Calrissian July 23, 2012 at 08:08 PM
I vehemently urge every SOMA taxpayer to send an email to the entire BOE demanding that they implement an annual re-registration in each HS grade. It is undeniably unacceptable that this has been permitted to go on and in my estimation amounts to a dereliction of duty on the part of the BOE and its attorney. if we do not hold these people accountable, they will not do it voluntarily.
Kalani Thielen July 23, 2012 at 10:24 PM
Well said! I was very surprised when Wren-Hardin and Gaudelli turned on the clear data indicating that M/SO has a problem with illegal students to then emotionally ask "what kind of message" it sends to visitors of the website, to see that hotline there. Perhaps it's an unhappy message, but a message that needs to be sent all the same. I've recently been reading Dr Seuss's "Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose" to my young son. Perhaps somebody should read it to Wren-Hardin and Gaudelli as well.
Andrea Marino July 24, 2012 at 01:25 AM
The hotline certainly is buried--it's at the very bottom of the registration page. This will ensure that they get virtually no hotline calls.
Irene Langlois July 24, 2012 at 01:57 AM
It's still on the homepage of the Maplewood Middle School website.
Julia Burch July 24, 2012 at 11:11 AM
I wonder how many cases the hotline finds--even on the front page of the district website. To deal effectively with the problem--which is a perennial one--the district needs to find successful and cost effective ways to identify non-domiciled students. They've got some now, and regularly remove non-domiciled students. The new concerns have arisen precisely because the district did do a partial re-registration. That's a good thing in my book. The question is what next? And I do think we need to be careful of scapegoating, and also consider the cost to our school communities of suspicion and labeling.
E Rohan July 24, 2012 at 11:52 AM
Nice piece Andrew. I have been wondering why the district hasn't updated the BOE photo in 3 months so thanks for the laugh about how quickly they updated the registration page about the hotline. The numbers and data were presented by the Superintendent, with the final numbers being presented in the fall and the Super and District Attorney commenting on their significance. Andrea Wren-Hardin questioned what kind of message it was sending? The message if you don't live here, your children should not be attending school here. That's the message. For people who feel terribly that not everyone can attend our schools, perhaps you can donate to scholarship funds for parochial schools or other private schools in poor surrounding towns.
David Frazer July 24, 2012 at 12:11 PM
The fixation on a "hotline" is a distraction. Does anyone seriously believe that one of the reasons we don't uncover more non-resident students is because civic-minded neighbors who would otherwise phone in a tip are incapable of finding a phone number for the district? That's a pretty low opinion of the citizenry. I have no problem with the "hotline" but I do have a problem with political posturing that makes support for an obviously faux solution some sort of litmus test.
Amy Higer July 24, 2012 at 01:33 PM
"The message is if you don't live here, your children should not be attending school here." Do we really need to send this message? How many people don't know that residency is a requirement for attending the public schools? Again, the danger to my mind is that the district is sending this message to the people who are wrongly investigated because of a suspected violation of this law: "You're guilty until proven innocent, and you must demonstrate that you belong to this community before you can attend 'our' schools." I certainly wouldn't want any district official knocking on my door asking me questions about who lives in my house without strong evidence that there's a cause for doing so. Some years ago, David Frazer had data that showed that 90 percent of those children investigated were legally domiciled here. I would like to get current data on this. If the data show something even close to that, we should be discussing this "cost" as part of the difficulty of addressing the issue. Non-residency is a real problem, and the district is addressing it. I just don't understand the attack on board members who have tried to grapple with it in a reasonable and thoughtful way.
Kalani Thielen July 24, 2012 at 02:22 PM
I attended the BOE meeting in question, where it was said that the hotline uncovered two non-residents out of (if I recall correctly) four reports in the last year. So it's not used very often.
Kalani Thielen July 24, 2012 at 02:32 PM
Ms. Higer, the Cold War analogy is not appropriate. Residency is defined simply, unambiguously (geometrically! a small child could verify whether a point is inside or outside a fixed boundary). My grandparents lived in the Hollywood area around the height of McCarthyism. There the fear was much more vague, and the consequences of being accused were much more severe. I agree with others that the hotline issue is much ado about little, but I wonder if you would have similar objections to 911 or direct lines to the police department? I think that there's a line of reasoning in this that has much more to do with political ambition than protecting the integrity of local schools.
Luke Skywalker July 24, 2012 at 02:38 PM
I simply cannot understand the apologists for families whom failed to return re-registration paperwork and the preumption that it was done for honest purposes when the overwhelming majority of families returned the paperwork in an expedient manner. If some people actually support subsidizing free education for non-domiciled students, I wish they would simply admit it, rather than concocting excuses at every turn whenever the Administration makes an attempt to root out families using our resources unlawfully. We've been told time and time again that illegal students were a "myth" and here we have credible evidence that not only are they not a myth, but they are prevalent in a randomly sampled grade. Moreover, we have absolutely no understanding of how deeply this has affected the achivement gap nor does anyone seemingly want to find out. This is a profoundly important issue at the local level and I wish that some intellectual honesty were at play here. I truly do.
Kalani Thielen July 24, 2012 at 03:06 PM
"Political posturing" is exactly how I'd characterize the kind of reasoning that got the hotline moved. You're right that it's a sideshow, though.
Amy Higer July 24, 2012 at 03:55 PM
Mr. Thielen, I see my attempt at humor misfired. Sorry you didn't like the joke. Yes, I think political ambition is involved here. Don't worry about me. Been there, done that. But there seems to be a concerted effort here to malign the present board and the Superintendent on trumped of charges of neglecting their duties, when the opposite is the case (if we were going to be intellectually honest about it). Mr. Skywalker (is this your real name?), who exactly is denying there is a problem? Obviously taxpayer dollars should be well-spent, and laws should not be violated. On that, we can surely agree. What we're discussing are appropriate, fair, and effective remedies. Four calls, and two legitimate leads, is not enough to justify fear-mongering. I don't see the logic of linking this issue to the racial achievement gap. The numbers, even if true, are so small they couldn't possibly make much of a difference. By linking the two issues, we risk trivializing an important and complex problem.
Morrisa da Silva July 24, 2012 at 05:08 PM
I disagree that having a residency hotline is fear- mongering. We are not the only district to have such a hotline - nor the only ones to have it on their website homepage or prominently displayed. Here is West Orange homepage: http://schools.woboe.org/Pages/Default.aspx Here is a whole article from Montclair Website: http://www.montclair.k12.nj.us/Article.aspx?Id=557 The fact that there were only 4 calls means it is not being abused and the fact that 2 of those calls resulted in identification of 2 non-domiciled students means that we have a rate of 50% from a tip-line which is actually quite high. See Montclair's stats for comparison in the link above.
Amy Higer July 24, 2012 at 05:28 PM
Clarification: I didn't say having a "hotline" is fear-mongering. I said the claim that we have a problem of great significance that is not being addressed is fear-mongering.
Andrew Lee July 24, 2012 at 07:30 PM
Thanks for the comments. I wrote this posting because I felt that it was important to document the facts and data that were reported by the Superintendent and the General Counsel. I'm not criticizing either of them. In fact, based on his acknowledgment of the problem, it looks like the Superintendent is taking the issue seriously. I am, however, criticizing some members of the Board for not acknowledging the significance of the problem. I also want to make sure that the Board does not block the hotline or expanded student re-registration, tools that the Superintendent seems inclined to use. If I made any factual errors in what I wrote, please let me know and I will correct them. Even better, if you have any ideas or solutions, I would love to hear them.
Kalani Thielen July 24, 2012 at 07:55 PM
> Can we guess? No, that information isn't available, but of course that doesn't prevent folks from demagoguing. Perhaps you'd like to come out and say that the people who are putting pressure on the BOE are motivated by racism, and that they want black people out of "their" schools? This kind of rhetoric, which has been going on in Maplewood now for several years, is the real McCarthyism at play here. You can't cross some people on the board without being accused of racism. At this point, it's an established mode of politics. This is exactly why I've moved out of Maplewood.
Marina Budhos July 24, 2012 at 08:13 PM
I guess if we are trying to gain perspective here, I am wondering are these numbers drastically different than what the District has faced in the past? I remember years ago this was a hot issue and it does seem as if the Administration is coming up with a number of tools to ascertain residency--re-registration being one of them. The phone number/hotline does seem like one of the tools, but I'm not sure it has to be on the first page which announces the district in a general way--it is relevant to registration or it is relevant to any page that seeks input from parents who have a concern, no?
tbd July 24, 2012 at 08:46 PM
"Can we drop the hotline terminology, and call it a phone number, as they seem to do in Montclair and West Orange?" For what it's worth, both websites refer to the residency verification phone numbers as "hotlines". Neither of these towns appears to have a hang-up about the name assigned to the phone number, nor do they appear to have any angst about who will see the number on the website, even on the front page. Instead, (if you read the Montclair webpage), they seem to be dealing with the issue in a straightforward transparent manner.
Morrisa da Silva July 24, 2012 at 09:05 PM
This "sloppy method of enforcement" is used in many. many districts and is just one of many tools to discover non-domiciled students including re-registrations, and ongoing investigations . You assumptions of who gets investigated and what you believe Mr. Lee "no doubt knows" are of no use in this discussion. I have heard of a few people "not in the streotypically less affluent parts of town" who were investigated after moves spurred by Divorces. We'd be a lot better off if we stick to the facts.
Han Solo July 24, 2012 at 09:39 PM
A high single digit percentage, to you, is so small as to not have the possibility of making a difference? To me, and to every reasonable person out there without a racial axe to grind, an approachng 10% number is staggering.
Lauren Bright Pacheco July 24, 2012 at 10:09 PM
I'm going to bring up the fact that our BOE recently rezoned kids legally in our schools - uprooted them from their friends and paraded their families in a very public forum that pitted school communities against one another as they fought to keep their children in their zoned schools. They did this without first proactively addressing the number of non-domiciled students - a number we now know could be quite significant - and ignored a petition with a considerable number of taxpayers' signatures on it to do so. The way the in which our neighbors were forced to plead their cases before being rezoned was unfair at best. These families also wanted the best education for their kids, too, which is why they moved here and were willing to pay these high taxes in the first place. They didn't break the law and they weren't illegally taking other children’s places in their classrooms, but yet were removed from their neighborhood schools. Why should rezoning be considered acceptable and discussing non-domiciled students offensive and insensitive in our towns? It would seem that our District rezoning policy is about cold, hard numbers when it comes to taxpaying residents and falsifying residency is about warm, fuzzy individuals in terms of those not legally in our district. We're still dealing with strapped resources and overcrowding, so another rezoning is just a matter of time – which makes the issue of non-domiciled students even more pressing - and upsetting.
Lauren Bright Pacheco July 25, 2012 at 02:20 AM
Here are the emails: boemembers@somsd.k12.nj.us, bosborne@somsd.k12.nj.us
Morrisa da Silva July 25, 2012 at 12:42 PM
Thanks for the clarification. Your statement: "Four Calls, and two legitimate leads, is not enough to justify fear-mongering." did not convey that to me. Since we are clarifying things, I have found out the actual number of calls to the residency hotline were 7 - of these , 3 were verified as residents, 2 were not attending, and 2 removed as non-domiciled. I don't think acknowledging the issue and taking appropriate actions - as the Super has been doing so far, is fear-mongering. Mr. Lee makes this point and just wants to make sure that the issue continues to be faced head on.
Michael Paris July 25, 2012 at 01:15 PM
Mr. Lee: Thanks for the explanation for why you wrote this article. I don't have the exact policy solution, but I do have some thoughts in response to your article and comment. You write that you are "criticizing some board members for not acknowledging the significance of the problem." In the article, you specifically criticize Mr. Gaudelli and Ms. Wren-Harden for expressing some concerns about the existence of a hotline for anonymous tips, and/or for suggesting that it need not be placed on the homepage for the district website. The hotline is one issue, and the significance of the problem is another. All agree that the law has to be enforced. Disagreements concern competing values the underly disagreement about how to enforce it. Enforcement has costs--economic costs and symbolic costs. When there is a danger, as there is here, of enforcement that might target innocent people, and when that enforcement might be perceived by the targets or by others as discriminatory, then it makes sense to think about proceeding with caution. In light of these competing values, one could reasonably conclude (as Ms. Daugherty did at the meeting, or as Ms. Budhos does here) that the hotline number is a useful tool, but also that maybe it sends the wrong message, or creates the wrong "tone," to place it on the homepage. One could also reasonably conclude, as I would, that the hotline is unseemly and its marginal yield isn't worth it. POST CONTINUED IN NEXT COMMENT:
Michael Paris July 25, 2012 at 01:28 PM
When I first read your piece, I had the same reaction as Amy Higer (we're married,, so sometimes we agree and sometimes we don't). It struck me as uncharacteristically one-sided, shrill, alarmist, etc. I had that reaction because you give no thought or attention at all the competing considerations. "Fear-mongering" seemed a fair characterization, or at least a politically permissible one, in order to meet a one-sided view with another one-sided view. My reaction was also colored by the horrible stuff I was reading about the issue on Maplewood Online. In light of the discussions over the past few days, however, I now think that my reaction was too strong and a bit unfair to you. Fear-mongering implies an intent to appeal to base emotions for political gain, and that is not what you are doing here. As for ideas, when enforcement can be perceived as discriminatory, and one decides that more enforcement is needed, one good solution would be to step up enforcement while making sure that the burdens of enforcement fall equally on all citizens (as in random check-points or subway searches). Re-registration is an example of that too, so I guess this is how the super and BOE have been thinking about it all along. More re-registrations have economic costs for everyone, of course. It's not for me to sort out the costs and benefits--that depends on more facts, and some of those facts are not in yet. Best, Michael Paris
Morrisa da Silva July 25, 2012 at 01:56 PM
" The hotline is one issue, and the significance of the problem is another." The fact that Mr. Gaudelli and Ms. Wren-Harden's only response to the Super's report was to complain about the perception and tone of having the hotline on the homepage conflated the two issues. Had they acknowleged the significance of the numbers captured by the re-registration (as the Super and District Lawyer had) and talked about actions to address this going forward then perhaps their side discussion of the use and placement of the hotline would have been a less disturbing and frankly tone-deaf reaction.
Kalani Thielen July 25, 2012 at 04:59 PM
> Mr. Thielen, I see my attempt at humor misfired [...] My my, what ever could you mean? I see no joke or comment from me regarding it above (or below) this comment of yours. Perhaps some comments have been deleted?
Kalani Thielen July 25, 2012 at 06:15 PM
I like your definition of fear-mongering. How would you categorize this statement by Amy Higer, summing up the message sent by having a residency hotline? "You're guilty until proven innocent, and you must demonstrate that you belong to this community before you can attend 'our' schools." Also, could you ask Ms. Higer to comment on the significance of "our" being in quotes? I assume that's supposed to mean something, but I can't quite figure out what.
Amy Higer July 25, 2012 at 07:19 PM
Thank you, Morrisa, for bringing up the issue of families of divorce as part of this problem. I hadn't thought about that. That's sad in an entirely different way. It seems from your description (and I wasn't there, so I'm assuming this is accurate reporting) that Mr. Gaudelli and Ms. Wren-Harden were doing exactly what we want Board members to do: represent community concerns that hadn't been raised, and challenge the district on relevant aspects of the policy being discussed. They were not tone-deaf, but critical. They certainly voiced my concerns, and I'm glad they did. Isn't it a good thing for the community that we have school board members who are not rubber stamps of the Superintendent and the district, but are willing to challenge them when they see fit?

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