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Addressing Non-Resident Students in Our Schools

Are there significant numbers of non-resident students in the School District of South Orange and Maplewood? According to our Superintendent Brian Osborne, the answer is yes.

Are there significant numbers of non-resident students in the School District of South Orange and Maplewood?  According to our Superintendent Brian Osborne, the answer is yes. 

Last week, the School District reported on the re-registration of the 10th grade class at Columbia High School.  The District reported that out of the 497 students in the 10th grade class, five withdrew, five lost their hearings, and another 29 did not comply with the re-registration. Another 11 siblings of the students were not registered.  Given the reasonable assumption that the 29 who did not comply live outside of Maplewood and South Orange (we will know more after the school year starts), there were a total of 39 out of 497 students in the 10th grade not domiciled in the District.  That represents around 7.8% of the 10th grade class, a number that Superintendent Osborne called “significant”. Jessica de Koninck, attorney for the District, referred to the results as “big numbers”.

The results of the re-registration raise a number of difficult issues for our community.  With the average homeowner’s tax bill exceeding $10,000 a year, property taxes in Maplewood and South Orange are among the highest in the Nation.  Nearly 60% of our local property taxes go towards the school budget.  So, the fact that a significant number of non-resident students are attending our schools, and using resources meant for local kids, is upsetting to many residents.

At the same time, the schools in the neighboring communities of Irvington and Newark, where many of these non-resident students presumably come from, do not offer the quality of education that we do (despite spending a considerable amount more per student).  So it is understandable why a family in Irvington or Newark would be tempted into sneaking their child into our schools for a better future.  Understandable, but not acceptable.

 

For every non-resident student that is seeking a better education, there are many more local kids who are struggling academically.  Among our local students, we have persistent racial and gender academic achievement gaps that we haven’t overcome.  This must be our first priority.

One way to have a common-sense reasonable approach to enforcement would be to allow resident tips and information about non-resident students.  In fact, the District has a hotline for residents to call with information about ineligible students.  973-762-5600, ext. 1749.

But signs from some members of the School Board are not encouraging. The Superintendent’s report on the re-registration gave rise to a Board of Education debate on whether the District’s hotline should be prominent or not on the website.  One Board member, Bill Gaudelli, said he did not want a hotline at all, because among other reasons, only a few calls had been reported.  Another member, Andrea Wren-Hardin, also suggested that she did not want a prominent hotline, questioning what kind of message it was sending.  Other Board members, including Board President Beth Daugherty, supported a hotline, but did not believe it needed to be on the main page.  Board members Wayne Eastman and Lynne Crawford wanted a prominently displayed hotline number.

As a result of this discussion, the hotline ended up being buried on the registration page of the District’s website.  You can see it here, if you look closely enough.  Tellingly, in contrast to the speed of this website change, the District still has an old outdated photo on its website that includes Board members who are no longer on the Board of Education.

And so, a possibly effective way to get information to school officials about non-resident students has been cut off.  This is not what most residents have in mind when they elect Board members to help manage our School District’s financial health. 

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to walk around a number of neighborhoods in Maplewood and South Orange and talk to residents.  I was surprised to learn, from the conversations I’ve had, that homeowners in the stereotypically less affluent areas of our towns – such as the Hilton neighborhood in Maplewood – tend to be most concerned about this issue.  To the residents I spoke with, the issue was one of basic fairness.  Why live in Maplewood or South Orange if they could simply move a few streets over, pay less in taxes, and still send their children to the schools?

Respect for taxpayers requires that we act to prevent non-resident students from attending our schools.  We need common-sense reasonable approaches, such as a publicized and accessible hotline, re-registration of more grades at the start of each year, and, where permitted by law, actions against any landlords who aid and abet fraudulent registrations.  As the Superintendent’s report makes clear, the issue of non-resident students is not going away.  What we need right now from the Board of Education is an acknowledgment of the problem, and a commitment to address the issue.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Michael Paris July 25, 2012 at 01:28 PM
When I first read your piece, I had the same reaction as Amy Higer (we're married,, so sometimes we agree and sometimes we don't). It struck me as uncharacteristically one-sided, shrill, alarmist, etc. I had that reaction because you give no thought or attention at all the competing considerations. "Fear-mongering" seemed a fair characterization, or at least a politically permissible one, in order to meet a one-sided view with another one-sided view. My reaction was also colored by the horrible stuff I was reading about the issue on Maplewood Online. In light of the discussions over the past few days, however, I now think that my reaction was too strong and a bit unfair to you. Fear-mongering implies an intent to appeal to base emotions for political gain, and that is not what you are doing here. As for ideas, when enforcement can be perceived as discriminatory, and one decides that more enforcement is needed, one good solution would be to step up enforcement while making sure that the burdens of enforcement fall equally on all citizens (as in random check-points or subway searches). Re-registration is an example of that too, so I guess this is how the super and BOE have been thinking about it all along. More re-registrations have economic costs for everyone, of course. It's not for me to sort out the costs and benefits--that depends on more facts, and some of those facts are not in yet. Best, Michael Paris
Morrisa da Silva July 25, 2012 at 01:56 PM
" The hotline is one issue, and the significance of the problem is another." The fact that Mr. Gaudelli and Ms. Wren-Harden's only response to the Super's report was to complain about the perception and tone of having the hotline on the homepage conflated the two issues. Had they acknowleged the significance of the numbers captured by the re-registration (as the Super and District Lawyer had) and talked about actions to address this going forward then perhaps their side discussion of the use and placement of the hotline would have been a less disturbing and frankly tone-deaf reaction.
Kalani Thielen July 25, 2012 at 04:59 PM
> Mr. Thielen, I see my attempt at humor misfired [...] My my, what ever could you mean? I see no joke or comment from me regarding it above (or below) this comment of yours. Perhaps some comments have been deleted?
Kalani Thielen July 25, 2012 at 06:15 PM
I like your definition of fear-mongering. How would you categorize this statement by Amy Higer, summing up the message sent by having a residency hotline? "You're guilty until proven innocent, and you must demonstrate that you belong to this community before you can attend 'our' schools." Also, could you ask Ms. Higer to comment on the significance of "our" being in quotes? I assume that's supposed to mean something, but I can't quite figure out what.
Amy Higer July 25, 2012 at 07:19 PM
Thank you, Morrisa, for bringing up the issue of families of divorce as part of this problem. I hadn't thought about that. That's sad in an entirely different way. It seems from your description (and I wasn't there, so I'm assuming this is accurate reporting) that Mr. Gaudelli and Ms. Wren-Harden were doing exactly what we want Board members to do: represent community concerns that hadn't been raised, and challenge the district on relevant aspects of the policy being discussed. They were not tone-deaf, but critical. They certainly voiced my concerns, and I'm glad they did. Isn't it a good thing for the community that we have school board members who are not rubber stamps of the Superintendent and the district, but are willing to challenge them when they see fit?

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