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May 13, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, May 13, 2005

District defends safeguards against illegal students District defends safeguards against illegal students (May 13, 2005)

Critics charge that Tinsley agreement, affidavits provide loopholes

by Alexandria Rocha

Faced with accusations of abetting spotty enrollment policies, officials with the Palo Alto school district have outlined procedures for catching non-resident students at the gate and also provided new figures on how many have snuck in this year.

Marie Scigliano and Barbara Stelle, who both oversee the district's central attendance office, told Board of Education members at their regular meeting this week that nearly 70 investigations, leading to 12 dismissals of non-resident students, have so far been conducted this year.

"With the excellence of our school district, this is the outcome. People try very hard to get in," said board member Gail Price. "While most of them are legitimate, we do have some issues here."

The local district's enrollment policies came into the spotlight when administrators from the Fremont Unified School District purged more than 200 non-residents last month as a way to contain costs.

Palo Alto and the neighboring district are both Basic Aid systems, which means they're funded through property taxes rather than the state, and do not receive additional funds as enrollments increase.

Because of Fremont's attendance fiasco, Tom Ashton, a leader of the campaign against the district's June parcel tax election, began asking about registry procedures, wondering if a similar crackdown on non-resident students was needed here -- also to contain costs.

Those in the central attendance office say they're doing all they can. The district's admittance process includes a strict list of documents required for registration and an undercover process to identify unlawful registrants. There are, however, intricate loopholes that allow specific groups of non-residents into the district.

So far, nothing on par with the Fremont Unified School District's non-resident situation has happened locally, and Palo Alto Superintendent Mary Frances Callan said it's impossible to compare the two districts. While Fremont Unified is a high school district that admits about 2,500 new students a year, Palo Alto's system is kindergarten through 12th-grade, enrolling 800 fresh faces each fall that are mostly 5 years old.

Administrators said 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. Fremont Unified just recently moved to that process.

The district accepts only a few specific forms for proof of residency. Homeowners must provide either 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.

This isn't to say the district doesn't enroll any students from outside the area. For one, Palo Alto Unified's boundaries stretch into parts of Portola Valley, unincorporated Santa Clara County and Los Altos Hills, as well as Stanford. The district also admits children of employees who do not live in Palo Alto, and currently there are 104 students enrolled under those terms.

About 560 East Palo Alto students are also attending local schools through a 1986 court order, known as the Tinsley Program, which requires the district to admit 60 new kindergartners from the neighboring town every year.

The Tinsley Program has publicly received some heat in recent months from Ashton and Martin for being out-of-date -- the order was originally meant to bring minorities into Palo Alto Unified. But the two other ways non-residents can attend local schools have caused the most recent uproar -- the family and caregiver affidavits.

About 220 students currently attend public schools here under family affidavits. This is when one family lives with another family in their Palo Alto residence, by either house sharing or renting a room.

While the family affidavit is the district's tool, the state Department of Education requires the caregiver affidavit be offered. This is when a student lives with a relative or non-relative other than a parent, such as an aunt, uncle or family friend. There are currently 71 students living with a caregiver and attending Palo Alto Unified.

For both, proof of residency from caregivers and host families are required, as well as documentation that the student lives there. Scigliano said these affidavits have to be renewed annually.

Spending about $10,500 on each student, the 289 students who attend the local schools on affidavits cost the district more than $3 million.

"For years it appears (the affidavits have) been a PAUSD 'dirty little secret' and it is in their best interest to keep it that way lest a deluge of students would be coming in," wrote Ashton in an e-mail to the Weekly. "... we are finding out how devastating they can be for the PAUSD which is a Basic Aid district, that means they get no money from the state for any extra students."

Despite the contention, district officials stand by their enrollment policies. Besides, Barbara Stelle, who has been supervisor of the district's central attendance office since it began, said the most popular form of illegal enrollment are fake leases, not affidavits.

"The lease looks legitimate, the owner verifies it, then we find down the road that the child doesn't live there. I don't know how we can stop everyone at the gate," Stelle said.

"It's tough when people are willing to lie," board member Cathy Kroymann added,

Scigliano said tips come in daily from people who suspect a student is a non-resident. She gets e-mails, letters and phone calls from community members routinely, and sometimes principals, who notice nuances about a certain student, such as regularly being tardy or not being picked up from school on time.

Sometimes younger children make slip-ups, too, Scigliano said. For example, a student telling a counselor they live by the Sunnyvale mall. Just the other day, she added, a student on a field trip pointed to a building and said it was near his house, but the field trip was outside of Palo Alto.

Board Vice President Mandy Lowell said parents who register their child and don't care which school they get into also raises a red flag.

"People who live here really want to be in their neighborhood school," she said.

And sometimes it's as simple as two families with the same address coming up in the district database.

Scigliano said the central attendance office checks into every tip. Stelle and her co-workers will first check records and if the appropriate documentation isn't there, they will ask the family to bring it in. If the forms are provided and there is still suspicion, Stelle's office will conduct unannounced home visits, observe the house in question and interview neighbors.

"When you work in the department, you get a feel that some of the people may not being telling the truth," Stelle said.

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