The Journal News has published a totally one-sided puff-piece on the residency issue at New Rochelle schools. I am not going to dignify the article by repeating the headline on Talk of the Sound but the link is below.
This article represents a new low for Aman Ali and the Jounal News which takes at face-value data provided by the district, offers no critical analysis, questions nothing put forward by the administration, makes no mention of the contentious questioning of Organisciak by long-time school board member David Lacher, contains not a single reaction from those who have been raising this issue at school board meetings, and even features this sick-making quote:
"I was a little surprised because I thought it would have been higher," Organisciak said. "The way you hear people talk about this, you would think it would be three times that amount."
Organisciak is "surprised"? Why? The data he presented goes back to 2007 and he has to sign off on any removals of students. Yet, the Journal News gives Organisciak carte-blanche to put forward the absurd notion that the first he heard about any of this was this month, that until now he did not know how many students were being removed each year from the school district he purportedly runs. As usual, Organisciak lies and misleads the public and Aman Ali and the Journal News happily serves as his enabler.
Real reporters working for legitimate newspapers serve the community in a watchdog role, challenging public officials and holding them to account. In New Rochelle, we are shackled with a subservient Managing Editor, Henry Freeman, and Organisciak's poodle, Aman Ali. I look forward to the day when Gannett, losing money hand over fist, shutters the Journal News. At least then the school district will not have the benefit of a propaganda outlet which both accepts cash payments from the District on the one hand and then writes articles spoon-fed to them by school officials on the other.
Nowhere in his article does Ali question the "fox guarding the hen house" nature of this so-called "investigation". He does not review any of the data he is reporting, never tells readers what happened to the hundreds of referrals made to the district where kids were not removed, in fact, he does not tell readers anything more than what Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak wants them to hear.
Newsflash to Ali, New Rochelle residents want an independent investigation not the sort of self-serving whitewash we have here. In fact, this is not an investigation at al, merely a report on data compiled by the district over the past two years (and why just two years, what happen in 2006? 2005? 2004?) Since Ali rarely attends school board meetings, did not attend the meetings where the residency issue was first raised (even though he references these meetings he did not attend) and did not interview any of the residents raising this issue the entire basis for his article is information provided to him by school district officials (including me, the person who has been raised the issue first and done so louder and longer than anyone in New Rochelle). No surprise then that the article serves to exonerate the District of any wrong doing without even noting what the wrong doing was in the first place.
Nowhere do we read that for many months the district administration and school board have repeatedly denied there were ANY non-residents attending school in New Rochelle. When residents and school board candidates have raised the issue, members of the school board and Organisciak have routinely deflected questions about the residency issue and otherwise claimed it was a non-issue.
In perhaps the most absurd exchange, last May, Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak instructed school board candidate Dr. Jack Wagner to follow students to home, knock on the door, verify the student is living at the residence and then provide the district with names of children he had thus confirmed to live outside the district. Wagner declined to pursue Organisciak's suggestion.
The real story here is that after months of stonewalling, the district now admits that there it gets hundreds of complaints a year and has removed a hundred students over the past two years. But, instead of focusing on this marked shift in the district's public position -- which suggests they have willfully sought to mislead the public all along -- the Journal News instead seeks to close the book on the matter by charitably describing the number of students wrongly enrolled as a "small fraction". The phrase is nothing more than a transparent attempt to discredit critics of the school district and paint the issue as a matter of "much ado about nothing".
Not sure where the reporters and editors at the Journal News were taught math but the numbers claimed by critics have always been a "small fraction" of the student population. The number of kids recently removed from Mount Vernon was 880 out of 10,000 - a small fraction (1/25th). Our initial conservative estimate was that there are 200 wrongly enrolled students out of 11,500 in New Rochelle -- a small fraction (1/58th). Our revised estimate after the Mount Vernon story broke was to double our original estimate to 400 out of 11,500 -- still, a small fraction (1/29th). The issue is not whether it is a "small fraction" of the total population but how high the cost of having any number of students greater than zero in the New Rochelle schools.
Every wrongly enrolled student costs about $20,000. The district claims to be removing 50 kids a year (Deidre Polow said between 60 and 90 a year). That's a million dollars a year, at least. But are these students only in the district for a single year? I personally know of students removed from New Rochelle High School. How many years did they attend school in New Rochelle as a non-resident? It is close to a mathematical certainty that the average number of years a "removed student" was in the school system prior to being removed is great than 1 so the the price tag on each child removed is going to be tens of thousands of dollars per kid and maybe even over $100,000 in some cases. And, of course, Diane Massimo now admits the district takes no punitive action against the criminals who defraud New Rochelle taxpayers and seeks no reimbursement from the parents or from the child's actual home district. Given this "no harm, no foul" policy is it any wonder that parents from other districts are lined up around the block at the beginning of each school year trying to finagle their kids into New Rochelle schools -- no downside and lots of upside (if you live in Mount Vernon, the Bronx or some other third-rate district).
This reminds me of the district's claims about the "savings' the district would achieve by turning out the lights in school buildings. John Quinn must have carpal tunnel syndrome by now after patting himself on the back so many times at school board meetings for his "innovative" plan to turn off the lights at night in our schools. Not once did we hear how the District has been wasting money for decades by leaving these same lights on all this time.
In the case of non-resident students in our schools, Quinn wants to focus on the $1 million saved going forward by removing 50 kids a year rather than then $1 million a year wasted by allowing them to enroll in the first place.
After Organisciak's presentation to the school board two weeks ago, we raised a wide range of questions that should be answered to which I would now add the following:
Of the roughly 50 students per year that have been removed, how many years were they in the school district prior to being removed?
Why did Organisciak limit his report to the school board to the past two school years? Why not go back before his tenure? Wouldn't that show how things have changed under his watch?
To the Journal News, why did you not interview any of the residents who were, according to your own story, "spurred" the report by Organisciak to the board?
Why does the Journal News continue to take Organisciak at his word when he has repeatedly been shown to have demonstrably lied to Journal News reporters in the past?
What exactly does an attendance officer do when they receive a complaint from a resident?
And my personal favorite: If last year 58 students were found to have been wrongly enrolled and then removed based on 225 complaints from residents, how many students were removed based on investigations initiated by the school district itself. That would appear to be zero.
Does anyone at the school district care to discuss the one grandmother in the Trinity District who has, for years, enrolled well over a dozen grand children with the school district?
Does anyone at the school district care to discuss the out-of-district cases, students who have never stepped foot in New Rochelle but whose out-of-district tuition is fully paid for by the District?
Here is the original set of questions after the recent board meeting:
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.
The fact is that until the school budget is defeated twice and the state brought in to do the sort of rigorous residency investigation done in Mount Vernon, New Rochelle residents will continue to pay millions of dollars a year to educated other district's kids.