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.