September 24 — 11:00 pm, 2003

Parents cross district lines, face criminal charges

The seemingly perfect public school could be a few blocks away, or even right across the street. But unless school district boundary lines have you zoned in, officials of neighboring school districts intend to keep you blocked out.

Some parents have recently learned the hard way that if you live in Philadelphia, attending public school in the suburbs is not an option.

With the discovery of an increasing number of Philadelphia parents trying to beat the system and enroll their children in suburban school districts, officials in the suburbs are changing registration procedures and even hiring private detectives to ensure that students actually live within district boundaries.

"School districts are serious about enforcing the law," said Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School Principal Monica Sullivan, whose school ousted two students last May when they were caught attending without the requisite local addresses.

The enforcement does not stop there. Colonial School District, home to Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School, is pursuing criminal charges against the West Philadelphia parents of the removed students. Charges include theft by deception and criminal conspiracy, each third degree felonies carrying three-and-a-half to seven-year jail terms, according to the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office.

Noting that officials often find themselves in a "difficult position," Director of District Safety for Colonial School District Paul Antal said the tough approach was necessary to deter potential swindlers and allow the district to serve the children who live within its bounds.

"We have an obligation to the people we service," he said, pointing out the high property taxes area residents pay to fund local area schools.

According to district officials, Colonial School District spends over $10,000 annually to educate a student, with costs soaring to double that or more when language barriers or special needs arise. They say parents who live outside of district boundaries are not subject to the taxes that generate more than three-quarters of these funds and are imposing a burden without paying the price.

In contrast, the School District of Philadelphia spends around $2,000 less per student and relies on state funding to foot half of the educational bill.

"I think all school districts outside of Philadelphia have this problem," Antal said. "Parents are trying to get what they feel is the best education possible for their children."

Yet suburban district officials emphasize that – short of a move – this decision is not a viable form of school choice for Philadelphia parents. In Pennsylvania, school districts have the option of whether to open their doors to out-of-district students.

A small number of students who live outside Philadelphia come into the city to attend Philadelphia public schools, primarily the special admission magnet schools. They first have to meet admissions criteria; if they attend, they must make tuition arrangements with the School District accounting department.

But Philadelphia School District Director of Student Placement LeTretta Jones said that she was not aware of any formal arrangements for students from the School District of Philadelphia to transfer to surrounding school districts.

"That has been a big issue in terms of school choice," remarked Jones. "I’m sure that somewhere in the country that [transfer option] must exist, but here, no suburbs will accept our students."

In fact, according to a report by the Education Commisssion of the States, twelve states have laws that mandate the availability of student transfers across district lines. In four other states, students attending low performing schools must be given the option to leave their home district.

But in Pennsylvania, until there is a change in state law or school districts decide to make interdistrict transfers an option, crossing district lines to attend school in a suburban district will remain an illegal act.

Colonial School District Superintendent Vincent Cotter reports that approximately 50 students out of 4,800 enrolled in his district are currently suspected of attending illegally.

"Often times students are caught in the middle [of a semester], but we go forward with the de-admit process" whenever suspicions are confirmed, Cotter said.

"We’re systematically going through our records to make sure our students live in our district," Antal commented, noting that since learning of the criminal charges facing some parents, several out-of-district families have withdrawn their children.

Parents could soon face more stringent punishments. State Rep. Melissa Murphy Weber (R – Montgomery County), whose district includes Colonial School District, is co-sponsoring legislation that would make out-of-district parents financially responsible for district expenses during the time of their child’s enrollment.

"It’s a pervasive problem," Weber said of the influx of urban students into suburban schools. She said House Bill 614 seeks to provide accountability that funds are being used to educate the local residents whose families provide them.

"People go to extraordinary means to help their children," Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Beatrice Lemanowicv said. "But here there is a criminal intent, and that’s how our office views it."

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