Galloway Township had 60 students transfer out of its district during the last school year because they were attending illegally.
The district recouped $32,000 in court-ordered tuition restitution and is still litigating two cases with a potential restitution of almost $132,000.
“We start out nice,” said Galloway school supervisor Marilyn Moore, who oversees the attendance and residency issues. “Some parents will say they didn’t know their child couldn’t stay in the school. But others will make up false leases and addresses.”
Student residency seems simple enough: Children attend school in the town where they live. But complicated family dynamics, homelessness and clever cheaters can make proving actual residency a lengthy, time-consuming process for school districts.
Hamilton Township Superintendent Michelle Cappelluti said her district dis-enrolled more than 100 students from 2011 to 2013, although the problem seems to have dwindled this year. School attendance officers investigate cases, but the time it takes is a challenge.
“It is my feeling that if we had the manpower to check residencies on a full-time basis, we would find more,” Cappelluti said.
The complexity of residency issues was highlighted after Hurricane Sandy, when families were displaced for months outside their hometowns. Technically, the children were considered temporarily homeless and entitled to attend school in their hometown district. Some districts sent buses to pick up children living in neighboring towns, but others said the distances were too far and children would have to attend school where they were living.
New Jersey’s Department of Education recently allocated $800,000 to 11 school districts for Sandy relief, noting that most of the funding covered the costs of transporting displaced students.
In cases of homelessness, a district can recoup the tuition from the family’s hometown school district, but after one year that family is then considered a resident of the new district.
District registration forms often clearly state that parents could be held liable for tuition costs if their child is found to be illegally attending local schools. But collecting can be difficult depending on a family’s financial means.
Egg Harbor Township has three attendance officers but still has a hard time monitoring every possible case.
“We’re just so large,” said H. Russell Swift School Principal Pete Bretones, who has monitored student registration. “With 8,000 students, it’s hard to monitor them all.”
He said the district will investigate if it gets a complaint, and sometimes school bus drivers will report suspicious behavior, but investigations typically require surveillance on multiple dates.
Monitoring a potential residency issue is typically a team effort by the office staff that handles the paperwork, school bus drivers and attendance officers. A child of divorced parents may legally spend time sleeping outside the district at the home of the noncustodial parent. A child of working parents may stay at a relative’s house before and after school.
Middle Township Superintendent Michael Kopakowski said his district had a custody case this year that initially seemed suspicious but turned out fine.
“It can get complicated,” he said.
But some families are just cheating the system. School officials said reasons families give for lying on their child’s registrations include not wanting them to attend the hometown school, that it’s more convenient to their job or that they have babysitting issues.
Mainland Regional High School officials investigate cases every year and have stopped students from attending. Superintendent Thomas Baruffi said sometimes the issue can be resolved quickly by asking for additional documentation. Other times, the district has hired a private investigator.
“These cases can be difficult because the burden of proof basically lies with the district,” Baruffi said. “Parents can be very creative in finding ways to ‘beat the system,’ but the ultimate price they pay can be steep.”
Galloway’s school district reviews leases annually and even monthly if residents are on a month-to-month lease. In 2012-13, the part-time attendance officer conducted almost 1,300 investigations, including 840 expired leases and 114 verifications that students were legally living with someone other than a parent.
Moore said the district does make allowances. If a family moves during the last marking period, the child can finish the school year in Galloway. If the family is moving into a new home soon after school starts, they’ll be allowed to register in September.
“We try to do what is best for the child,” Moore said. But, she said, cheating is not really in a child’s best interests.
“If they are lying about where they live, they are also teaching the child to lie about it,” she said, adding that school officials have caught families because a child made an innocent comment that made it clear they did not live in the district.
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