With all the excitement last week over the board coup which saw Quay Watkins first take herself out of the running for school board president and then be defeated as a candidate for school board vice president, we set aside another highly significant event which took place at the Committee of the Whole meeting just minutes before the coup -- David Lacher grilling Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak on the loopholes contained in the district's residency policy which, according to Lacher, provided a "road map" for parents to improperly place children from other school district in the New Rochelle schools.
Lacher has hit the nail on the head and in so doing provided another motivation for allowing non-resident children to enroll in New Rochelle schools -- there are various constituencies within the community that have been for many years arranging for grandchildren, nephews and nieces of New Rochelle residents to attend school in New Rochelle. If I had to guess this is some of the same people who have been placing highly unqualified personnel in positions of great responsibility within the schools to provide for the security and safety of New Rochelle students.
While he put on an excellent performance -- one of the rare examples of a board member asking tough questions of the administration at a public meeting -- there needs to be follow through by Mr. Lacher.
What is clearly needed is a two-step process where the District (1) implements a truly rigorous process going forward; (2) an aggressive, highly invasive residency investigation for EVERY student in New Rochelle public schools. This full-scale investigation should take place every five years as a "fail safe" measure.
Now let's take a look at the particulars of what was discussed about the "residency issue" last Tuesday.
As regular readers know, since last fall, Talk of the Sound has been at the forefront of raising the "residency issue" in New Rochelle. We have conservatively estimated that more than 200 students are "wrongly enrolled" in the New Rochelle school system but recognize the figure is likely far higher. At a cost of $20,000 per student, that would mean the schools are spending over $4 million per school year of New Rochelle taxpayer money to educate children from Mount Vernon, the Bronx and elsewhere.
This past spring, the Mount Vernon school district revealed that a residency investigation in their district showed that over 800 students (out of roughly 10,000) we're "wrongly enrolled". The matter came to a head when the Mount Vernon school board initially voted down the Superintendent's proposed budget which called for cutting 50 teachers no longer needed since 10% of the students were being kicked out. If the numbers in New Rochelle are similar (and there is no reason to think they are not) it would mean that there are about 880 wrongly enrolled students in New Rochelle at a cost of almost $18 million per year or about 7.5% of the total budget for the year.
Our attempts and those of school board candidates to raise the issue at school board meetings have been literally shouted down by school board members. Quay Watkins, Mary Jane Reddington and Deidre Polow have been foremost in grandiosely dismissing concerns of residents and candidates. Ironically, it was Ms. Polow who inadvertently disclosed the board's awareness of an issue they had long sought to deny. In a response to a question during the League of Women Voter's forum in May, Polow said that the district was removing 60 to 90 "wrongly enrolled" students per year from the New Rochelle public schools. That would mean during her most recent term of office the district has removed 300 to 450 students. Given her claim, our conservative estimate of 200 may be far too low.
Given the vehement denials of board members and the administration, it was with great surprise that we noted the agenda for last week's school board meeting had "Residency Issue" listed as an agenda item. During the meeting Organisciak described the enrollment process for new students in New Rochelle:
A. Parents or guardians of student who apply to enroll in New Rochelle public schools are required to provide 3 current proofs of residence.
B. There are several "special cases":
- 1. Hosted Cases - a child is living with a family in New Rochelle where a New Rochelle resident takes responsibility for someone else's child; in such cases the New Rochelle resident must provide proof of surrender.
- 2. Custody Cases - a child of separated or divorced parents living with one of the parents in New Rochelle is considered a resident of New Rochelle if the parent living in New Rochelle can produce an Affidavit of Custody and the student can be enrolled in the New Rochelle public schools if the parents can product 3 current proofs of residence.
- 3. Foster Home Cases - a child living with foster parents in New Rochelle is considered a resident of New Rochelle and can be enrolled in the New Rochelle public schools if the parents can product 3 current proofs of residence.
- 4. Homeless Cases - a child found to be in New Rochelle and verified as homeless is immediately enrolled in the New Rochelle public schools.
C. The District has been actively engaged in preventing non-resident students from matriculating into the New Rochelle public schools and regularly removes students after suspected cases of wrongly enrolled students are referred to the District.
- 1. 2007-2008: 34 students who applied to the New Rochelle public schools were unable to prove residency and were excluded from New Rochelle public schools.
- 2. 2008-09: 48 students who applied to the New Rochelle public schools were unable to prove residency and were excluded from New Rochelle public schools.
- 3. 2007-08: 225 current students were referred to the District and 58 current students were found to be non-residents and thus excluded from New Rochelle public schools.
- 4. 2008-2009: 150 current students were referred to the District and 41 current students were found to be non-residents and thus excluded from New Rochelle public schools.
Organsiciak's explanation raises far more questions than it answers.
Before I begin raising them let me note that the guidelines the district has today are NOT STRICT. Summit, New Jersey just hired a new Superintendent from Orange, New Jersey. This man is very familiar with the residency game as a former EXPORTER of students. Now that he is in a more affluent district and hence an IMPORTER of students, he is determined to apply what he knows to block "wrongly enrolled" students from Summmit. His solution? One of this first actions at Superintendent was to require EVERY parent or guardian to come to their child's school with FIVE (5) proofs of residence. Now THOSE are some strict guidelines.
Is there a specific list of proofs that are considered acceptable, like what DHS gives out for U.S. passport proofs or the DMV gives out for Driver's License proofs? Why wasn't that list provided to the board, read aloud, or made available on the school district web site.
What effort is made to validate these proofs? For example, if a Con Ed bill is submitted as proof of residency is any effort made to contact Con Ed to determine how long the person indicated on the bill has been paying the bill? How about obtaining copies of cancelled checks to show that the person listed on the bill is actually paying the bills?
It was mentioned that student residences are checked by physical visits to the address listed as the home address of the child, then cross-verified that the people are living in New Rochelle. Does this apply to ALL cases are just the special cases?
How many students are enrolled year in each of the "Special Case" categories: Hosted Cases, Custody Cases, Foster Home Cases, Homeless Cases.
How is a child determined to be both "homeless" and "residing in New Rochelle"? Isn't that contradictory?
I expect that hosted cases will be a large percentage but I wonder about the 58 kids excluded in 2007-08 and 41 students excluded in 2008-09? How many of those kids were claiming to be "hosted" kids?
Why is a host told when to expect a surprise visit? Hosts are told to expect a "surprise visit" within 36 hours of the time when they file the enrollment papers. Is that really much of a window to create "surprise"? In many cases the host will claim they will be out of the home or otherwise may not be available at the time of the "surprise" visit so an appointment is made for the inspection. Is a surprise inspection by appointment much of a surprise?
As a matter of policy, once the "surprise" inspection appointment takes place the district never goes back again. Doesn't this invite hosts to simply make up a room for a day or two to look like the child is living with them get the kid's ticket punched and then send the kid on back to Mount Vernon or the Bronx?
225 and 150 students were "referred" in the last two years. How exactly were they referred? Is there a form to be filled out? Is this done by school employees? Disgruntled family members? Neighbors? Your average citizen? And how are such referrals made? How many of these referrals were, in efffect, dupes?
Does the District inform the whistleblower of the outcome of their complaint? For those who do refer students suspected of being wrongly enrolled, what happens to them? Are they provided any information about the outcome of their complaint? This seems very important because if you do not tell the person who made the referral about the outcome it fuels the sense that the district is doing nothing.
If the guidelines are so strict when a student if first enrolled, how are ANY students later identified as "wrongly enrolled"?
Jeff Hastie, although not yet a sworn member of the board at the time, suggested that the administration produce a monthly report of residency actions and circulate that information to the board. Why limit circulation of that information to the board? To do so, from the POV of the general public is a continuation of the current policy to say nothing publicly about the matter which allows people like Watkins, Reddington and Polow to continue to deny there is a problem. If the goal is to show the problem is not as significant as some (like Talk of the Sound) fear how will circulating a "secret" document among board members address that point?
Why not turn the report Jeff Hastie asked for and turn it into a Board Resolution so the information is always made public. How about listing the names of adults who wrongly enrolled students and then publish that information on your web site. How about doing what the IRS does each year; pick a few strong cases and purse those who would defraud New Rochelle and make examples of them. At the very least, pursue their home district for some form of reimbursement.
As noted above, when we initially raised this issue the response of the BoE was to convey that idea that our claim -- that we conservatively estimate that there are at least 200 students wrongly enrolled in New Rochelle -- was absurd and even offensive. After the Mount Vernon residency story broke Talk of the Sound pointed out that if we had a similar size problem in New Rochelle that would mean about 880 wrongly enrolled students. Ms Polow, at the LWV forum said 60-90 students were removed each year. On Tuesday, Organisciak said that about 40 kids a year are being blocked from the outset and 50 kids are being removed. Given these numbers -- 40 a year, 50 a year, 60 a year, 90 a year -- why is it so unreasonable to think that for every student you identify and remove there are 2 or 3 or 4 others who are not identified? Given this, a figure of 880 wrongly enrolled students not only seems possible but likely.
It is nice that the "Residency Issue" was put on the agenda for public discussion but it will mean little if the questions above are not answered, steps taken to disclose the data each month and to implement the two-step process we have called for here: (1) a new, rigorous enrollment process with truly strict requirements; (2) a full-scale, highly invasive investigation of EVERY student currently enrolled.
The costs savings involved -- millions and millions of dollars -- more than justify the expense of a new, more serious approach to what has been a wholesale fraud perpetrated on the residents of New Rochelle by a lax administration and an asleep-at-the-switch school board. Kudos to Mr. Lacher for sounding tough last Tuesday. Now let's see who is prepared to act tough and drive out the parasites who have been allowed to pick our pockets for far too long.