Two months ago, in October of this year, Dr. Rhonda Jones, Director of Pupil Services for the New Rochelle Board of Education, addressed the board on the topic of residency verification. Her work and that of her team amounts to the sort of residency audit that Talk of the Sound has been calling for since 2009.
Dr. Jones appears to have conducted a thoughtful, well-thought out pilot program and presented a great deal of useful data. Missing from her report was any sort of analysis of the data which this article seeks to amend. There were still a few unexplained details in the report.
Her report clearly demonstrated that prior claims, made by others, that such a residency audit was unworkable were not accurate. Dr. Jones has proved them wrong. At a cost of less than $18,000, Dr. Jones and her staff were able to review 199 case files and based on that "exclude" 15 of the 199 families in her sample which had lied about being New Rochelle residents with possibly more based on further research. The average pupil cost in New Rochelle is about $21,000 so the pilot program was extremely cost effective and will save the district a large amount of money both this year and every year going forward that the children from these families are enrolled in their home district and not New Rochelle.
Board members asked some good questions (the complete video including the full Q&A is available on the district web site). One good question by Deidre Polow did not get an answer -- what happens to people who were in host families who did not have documentation and then claim they have moved within New Rochelle; does the clock reset?
I would take issue with one statement made by Dr. Jones that the pilot program was initiated to address the "perception" that there are children who do not live in New Rochelle who attend school in the district. This is not a "perception" but rather a well-documented fact. Previous reports to the board since 2009 have shown that hundreds of students were removed front the district and hundreds more thwarted in attempting to enroll students who do not live in the district. During this same time frame, a residency audit was conducted in Mount Vernon which found that 10% of the students in the Mount Vernon schools did not live in Mount Vernon (about 800 students).
The question is not one of addressing "perceptions" but dealing with the reality of a long-standing lackadaisical attitude towards so-called "wrongly enrolled" students under Dr. Carol Feldman, Dr. Jones predecessor.
The awareness, not perception, that there are large numbers of wrongly enrolled students in the New Rochelle schools exists primarily through our efforts here at Talk of the Sound. It should be noted that we first raised this topic there was an expression of outrage from board members, notably Quay Watkins and Mary Jane Reddington, as well as, administrators. Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak heatedly denied that there were any "wrongly enrolled students" attending school in the New Rochelle public schools. We now know this was not true.
Dr. Jones focused her pilot program on a sub-group of a sub-group: "host families" but only those who were newly registered with the district for the 2010-11 school year. She reported that there are 445 "host families" in New Rochelle. Her pilot program was limited to certifying just the 199 of those who registered during the 2010-11 school year or about 45% of the total. The remaining 246 host families are "long-term" host families. It has always been the policy of the district that host families were checked once and then left alone. That has been a major part of the problem. These long-term host families have never been reviewed and re-certified since their initial review which may have taken place as long as a decade ago or more. Dr. Jones acknowledged during the meeting that these long-term host families were more likely to be "excluded" based on a re-certification process. In other words, a higher percentage of the 246 host families might have wrongly-enrolled students in the New Rochelle schools than the 199 she checked so her results would tend to understand the extent of the problem among "host families".
So what is the extent of the problem identified in her pilot program?
Dr. Jones said the pilot program to evaluate residency requirements for host families began with a letter that was sent out in April of this year. Families who have been in the district for one year, were required to produced documents such as a pay stub, bank statement, driver's license or various forms of junk mail. She provided a table to the board (but not to the public or press) which broke down the results of the efforts to certify the 199 "just registered" host families.
199 letters were sent to "just registered" host families in April 2011
35 families responded by the deadline of June 30, 2011; 164 did not respond. Of the 199 host families who were newly registered in 2010-2011, Dr. Jones reported the following:
- 85 families were certified through home visits by staff between July 1st and August 31st.
- 16 families had moved out of New Rochelle "on their own".
- 10 families were no longer living in host families but had no documentation from their new address so they were registered as "families with no documentation"
- 15 families were "excluded", meaning the children were removed from the public schools in New Rochelle.
- 7 families were not verified but might be excluded pending further investigation.
- 6 families were not verified but were later contacted by Dr. Jones office and did respond to direct outreach by Dr. Jones' office.
- 25 families were not verified and did not respond to direct outreach by Dr. Jones' office.
The last figure was the basis for a question by Board President Chrisanne Petrone who asked Dr. Jones to explain the difference between the 7 families who were not verified and the 25 families who were not verified. The 7 did not receive phone calls as part of direct outreach by Dr. Jones' office, the 25 did receive phone calls but failed to respond. Dr. Jones answered by saying that once school started her office no longer followed up on the 25 families that did not respond. She said the district allowed the children of these host families to go to school in September, adding "we did catch up with these families in the end."
What is meant by catching up with these families in the end is not clear; the report was given less than a month after the start of the 2011-12 school year. If these families were certified between August 31st and October 4th, why did she not say so?
Additional information to consider:
- Dr. Jones said increased awareness by families now of the annual process which should make things smoother in the future.
- 6 people working over part-time over a period of 2 months at a cost to the district was $17,683.68. The per pupil cost of a student in the New Rochelle school district is about $21,000 a year.
- Long-term host families which have been registered with the district for years have never had a second check and are more likely to include students who do not live in the district. Jones proposed testing this by conducting a smaller audit of 20-25 long-term host families but added that she would need more personnel to carry that out.
- The district already requires verification for "home access" and to receive special education services and knows if letters sent to host families are returned as undeliverable.
Most parents and most taxpayers would likely agree that if it costs $17,683.68 to certify 199 host families and the average per pupil cost is $21,000 then residency audits are an incredible bargain. Dr. Jones says she needs more staff to do more audits. Given her fine efforts to date, who in New Rochelle would deny her the resources she says she needs?
Critics of residency audits like Mitchell Tarnopal have tried to justify the failure to do these audits on the grounds that the marginal cost of one additional student is not the same as the average per pupil cost because adding one student to a classroom does not increase the cost by $21,000. The simple-minded might be lulled by such fallacious reasoning but such is the case only if considering a single wrongly enrolled student. Since Talk of the Sound first made an issue of wrongly enrolled students there have been hundreds of students removed from New Rochelle schools and even more blocked for filing phony paperwork at the outset.
If there are 50 wrongly enrolled students then you might cost that out based on the need to hire, effectively, 2-3 teachers at a cost of $300,000 plus overhead. If there are 250 wrong students then you have to look at the cost of an entire building which costs tens of millions of dollars. In other words, if you have to account for a buildings' worth of extra students and a building cost $25 mm or more. In New Rochelle, the cost of wrongly enrolled students can be evaluated using a number of different cost factors but the figure is in the millions of dollars and not "free" as apologists like Tarnopal would have residents believe.
The data was presented by Dr. Jones without drawing conclusions which were surely obvious to her. The most important being that her staff was only able to verify 85 out of 199 families or 42.7%. Surely, the New Rochelle schools have a right to demand that "host families" ask "how high" when asked to jump to provide residency documentation. Yet Dr. Jones reported hostility by some families to being audited.
Of the remaining 114 families. Dr Jones reported that 16 families left "on their own". This could have been more clear. The families left or the families they were hosting left? How many of them left after receiving the April letter informing them of the pilot program to certify their residency? We are told they left but not when and why they left. Does simply informing families of an audit cause them to leave?
10 families were no longer living in host families but had no documentation from their new address so they were registered as "families with no documentation". This is what Deidre Polow was asking about and never got an answer but based on a similar question from Lianne Merchant last year, it appears that the clock is reset and these families are given another year to provide documentation -- a loophole that would allow families to keep moving around to avoid detection. This loophole must be closed or this figure will mushroom as people learn to game the system.
15 families were determined to have lied and were "excluded" meaning the children were not eligible to enroll in public schools in New Rochelle or 7.5% of the 199 host families. In addition, 7 families were not verified but might be excluded pending further investigation. If 4 of the 7 were later determined to have lied about their residency that would be 19 out of 199 or 9.6%.
Keep in mind that in Mount Vernon 10% of the students were found to be wrongly enrolled and that Dr. Jones agrees that the 246 long-term host families are likely to be are likely to be worse than the 199 in her pilot program so that percentage will almost certainly be higher if all 445 host families are re-certified.
The last part about the 31 families who were not verified by the end of the summer and allowed to continue in New Rochelle was very confused in its presentation by Dr. Jones. The simple question of whether the 25 families that did not respond to phone outreach were ever verified and certified was never answered. This being New Rochelle, one has to expect that the reason for failing to directly address this issue is that the answer is no. In that case you can add these 25 to the 15 families that were "excluded" and the 7 that are likely to be "excluded" so it is either 22 host families that lied about their residency or 47 or somewhere in between. On a percentage basis that represents between 11% and 24% of the 199 "just registered" host families and higher when considering the entire 445 host families.
The study understated the issue because Dr. Jones only reported on families, not the number of children in those families. By definition, every family has one child and many families will have multiple children so the total number of children amount to some figure higher than that.
Dr. Jones has the data to specifically answer this question but the true answer is likely around 2.0 children per family with 22 to 47 host families that comes out to be between 44 to 94 children among the 199 host families. That would indicate a figure well above that among the remaining 246 long-term host families. Together, as a ballpark, Dr. Jones data suggests that, even using the lower end of the range, that of the 445 host families there are about 15% who have lied about their residency or about 67 families. If they have 2 children on average that comes out to 134 children.
Dr. Jones study only looked at the 445 host family situations which may cover about 890 children. These are families who self-identified as hosts. There are surely many more parents who have simply lied from the start, using a fake address, never claiming to be in a host situation.
There are over 11,000 students in the New Rochelle public schools. Dr. Jones looked at 199 host families, possibly 400 children. She still needs to get around to the verifying and certifying the other 10,600 or so children.
In either case, those board members and administrators who got on a high horse to attack people like me, Vince Malfetano and Peggy Godfrey back in 2009 ought to be apologizing. Those parents whose children are in smaller classes and those taxpayers who are no longer paying to educate children from Mount Vernon, Yonkers, the Bronx and elsewhere ought to also be grateful for the effort to bring this issue to the forefront.
One thing is for sure. Given the quality of the effort. the board should be prepared to give Dr. Jones whatever resources she needs to expand this pilot program until wrongly enrolled students are as rare as an honest word from the lips of Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak.