It seems like a simple rule: Children must attend the school districts within which they live.
But local school officials say some parents try to bend the rules to enroll their children in different districts.
Those leaders say their districts are being taken advantage of – as are taxpayers, whose money supports the schools.
The Richland School Board recently decided that the problem was pervasive enough in the suburban Johnstown district to hire a private investigator to track down rule-breaking families.
Central Cambria Superintendent Jason Moore said his school district, based in Ebensburg, deals with a handful of residency situations each year.
“It’s an issue that we deal with regularly,” Moore said. “A lot of times, people are under the misconception that they can enroll in our district by using a relative’s address.”
Moore said his district has a team that investigates residency. If a student continues to attend the school, legal action is taken to pursue tuition costs.
“We make it clear that our intent is not to throw any student out,” Moore said. “We just need them to comply with the law out of fairness for the taxpayers and other students.”
Richland School District officials said they took the extra step of hiring a private investigator for two reasons: Costs involved in the distance sometimes traveled to confirm a student’s address, and safety concerns for district staff when investigating.
Superintendent Arnold Nadonley said there have been 18 cases of residency issues investigated in the past two years, and most of those are now closed. A private investigator was used in a limited number of cases.
Nadonley said students from five neighboring districts were identified as attending the district improperly. He referred to survey data from new parents in the district listing their satisfaction for Richland as a possible draw.
School districts, with the exception of Richland, offer a tuition fee for students who live outside their districts. The state-determined cost can vary but is typically about $8,000 for an elementary pupil, and $10,000 or more for a high school student, per year.
Westmont Hilltop Superintendent Tom Mitchell said it could be cheaper to buy a house or rent than to pay tuition in his district.
Conemaugh Township Superintendent Thomas Kakabar said when it is determined that a student is living outside the district, the matter is handled directly.
“Usually, when we explain if they are not legal residents of the district that they will be billed for tuition, it rectifies the situation,” Kakabar said.
Officials at Blacklick Valley School District and Conemaugh Valley School District said residency issues are rare.
Conemaugh Valley Superintendent Shane Hazenstab said a phone call to the family “typically” resolves the issue.
Blacklick Valley Superintendent William Kanich said that in the last three years, he has seen one or two residency cases.
Addresses, family issues
Districts across the area said they can use various measures to confirm residency for students – a drivers license, utility bills, payroll records showing where taxes are paid, a rental agreement in the case of non-homeowners.
Westmont’s Tom Mitchell said that it’s sometimes difficult to weed out the people who are not being honest.
“It’s impossible to quantify this,” Mitchell said.
He explained that Westmont elementary and the junior-senior high school have seen an increase in enrollment this school year. There have been 78 new students enrolled in the elementary and 44 at the junior-senior high school. But there isn’t an immediate concern of residency fraud.
Mitchell said the district tries to be empathetic about residency situations when they’re discovered.
“It all comes down to who is paying taxes,” Mitchell said. “If something comes up, we track it down.”
Greater Johnstown Superintendent Amy Arcurio said her district takes a softer approach because when an issue arises, it’s often because of a change in what she called the family dynamic – separations, divorces and other events.
If a change occurs near or right before the holidays, Greater Johnstown doesn’t pursue action until after the season is over so the student can keep some form of consistency, she said.
Or, if a student is in his or her senior year and has been educated in the district for the majority of the time, officials will usually allow the student to finish classes and graduate from Johnstown.
Cyber school factor
Some schools encounter residency concerns stemming from cyber school enrollment.
Confirming cyber school students is a huge issue for Greater Johnstown, Arcurio said. That’s due to a large transient population that moves through the city.
Districts are billed for the cost to educate students enrolled in a cyber school.
Arcurio said a challenge is confirming when a student began living in the district, if the student is still living there, or when the student left. Johnstown will continue to be billed for a student until an address is updated with the cyber school. Without the funds to investigate every case, Arcurio said, it’s hard to dispute a bill.
Last year, Greater Johnstown spent $2.3 million on cyber school costs, she said.
“We don’t have the capabilities or resources to send someone after that,” Arcurio said.