The number represents a huge increase: The year before, just 12 non-resident students were caught. The number of tips the district received on possible scofflaws also jumped — from 70 in 2004-'05 to more than 130 this year, according to district officials.
The increase, said one official, is likely because Palo Altans are paying more for public education than ever before, in June passing a parcel tax to raise additional funds. With the district spending about $10,500 on each student and schools filling up, property owners are more likely to rat out non-residents.
In addition, other area districts have been clamping down on the problem, putting more pressure on the Palo Alto Unified School District to do the same. In April 2005, administrators with the Fremont Union School District, which oversees schools in Sunnyvale, Cupertino and San Jose, purged more than 200 non-residents to cut costs. Some Palo Alto residents encouraged the district to follow in Fremont Union's footsteps, rather than asking local property owners to dig deeper into their pockets.
At its meeting Tuesday, the district's Board of Education will discuss adding a part-time "residency inspector" position to a list of priorities that would be funded in the 2006-'07 school year if additional funding from property taxes comes in. The board will discuss how much the position would cost.
"I'm glad to see this recommendation coming forward. This came up during the (June 2005) parcel tax big time," said parent Lauren Janov, at a recent school board meeting.
Marie Scigliano, the district's director of central attendance, has been behind the push to hire the residency inspector to clear the backlog of referrals and handle new ones as they come in. She has watched her current residency investigators — classified, or non-certificated, employees who work on cases before and after the regular workday hours — get buried in referrals this past school year, which ended last week. There are still 105 investigations open.
On a daily basis, Scigliano gets e-mails, letters and phone calls mostly from community members, but sometimes principals, who notice nuances about a certain student, such as regularly being tardy or not being picked up from school on time.
"It's the community awareness, the staff awareness," Scigliano said of the tips. "Folks are much more aware of living in the district limits. In years past, if there was room (in the schools), people weren't so aware of these things."
Once a residency investigator gets a tip, he or she will make a visit to the address where the student is supposed to live. Sometimes cases are closed immediately — either it's easily verified that the student lives at the residence or, in some cases, there is no residence.
Scigliano said investigators have found addresses painted onto sidewalks that didn't belong to a house. One investigator also went to an apartment complex and found address numbers and a doorbell on a wall, but no coordinating apartment.
But those are the easy ones, and there are rarely ones that easy.
Cases can also go on for weeks, Scigliano said, because the student is just not home. And with the complex schedules of families in Palo Alto, sometimes it's difficult to ever find anyone home at all.
"There are a number of reasons why folks wouldn't be there. A middle-school student could be staying at their grandmother's house. There are just a number of reasons," Scigliano said.
Administrators say Palo Alto's system has been highly efficient at catching non-residents since the early '90s, when the district moved to a centralized attendance office.
Before that, parents could register their child at the individual school sites. Now, all parents of new students have to do the paperwork at the district's main attendance office at 25 Churchill Ave., which has greatly helped the district weed out fake documents or other illegal attempts.
But with Internet access to rental agreements, Scigliano said some people just download the appropriate forms and have someone act as their landlord.
"You could come in with documents that look very authentic," she said.
The district will now only accept original documents. Homeowners must provide a current property tax bill, an escrow letter, or a tax assessment card showing ownership by the parent or legal guardian of the student. Renters must give the district a current lease or rental agreement, including the manager or owner's name and phone number.
Scigliano said the district does not accept phone bills or driver's licenses as proof of residency.
The issue has been particularly hot in Palo Alto and the Fremont Union district because both are community-funded, or "basic aid," systems — which means they're funded through property taxes rather than the state, and do not receive additional funds as enrollments increase.
In addition the Palo Alto school board is in the midst of discussions about its student populations and has already determined that some sites, including the two high schools, are nearing the set enrollment capacities.
The Board of Education will discuss the 2006-'07 budget and list of priorities, including adding a part-time residency investigator at its meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the district's board room, 25 Churchill Ave.
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