It’s often said that you can’t put a price on a good education, but in Lee’s Summit, it’s $53.66 a day for elementary pupils.
By MATT CAMPBELL
The Kansas City Star
That is the amount that the school district calculates is being stolen when interlopers lie to send their kids to Lee’s Summit classrooms even though they don’t live within the district’s boundaries.
Lee’s Summit has a message for those people: We will find you out and, if necessary, take you to court to make you pay.
Most school districts require proof of residency, as Lee’s Summit has since 2004. North Kansas City schools initiated that requirement last year. Many districts, such as Shawnee Mission, require proof every year. Some, such as the Independence schools, require three pieces of proof. And it is common for school districts to investigate when they have reason to suspect a student does not really live in their midst.
But this year the Lee’s Summitdistrict has taken things a bit further. The district created a new staff position with the sole purpose of investigating each case in which a family says it is residing in the district in an atypical situation, such as living with relatives.
In those cases, the families don’t have typical forms of proof like a utility bill, lease agreement or mortgage statement, so they are asked to sign affidavits about their living arrangements. They are called R1 and R2 enrollments.
Such cases have been growing in Lee’s Summit, from 636 in the 2009-10 school year to 899 last year — roughly 5 percent of students in a district with a total enrollment of 17,600.
The figure was 691 as of mid-October.
What is the parents’ motivation to lie? Presumably, it is to expose their children to what they believe is the greener grass of a better education. But people who surreptitiously send their kids to school in another district are not paying that district’s taxes to support that level of education. In the Lee’s Summit district, the tax rate is a little more than $6 per $100 of assessed valuation.
“It’s something that our community has said over time, that we really care and believe in the quality of education in this district, but we want to make sure our contribution through tax dollars and other things goes to the students that meet our residency requirements,” said Matthew Miller, the director of student services for the Lee’s Summit district.
Lee’s Summit officials acknowledge they don’t know exactly how widespread the problem of interloping is, but the school board deemed it significant enough to justify the cost of a new full-time staff position at $46,096 in salary and benefits.
It doesn’t take too many discoveries of noncompliance to recoup that expense. The district calculates the education it provides for elementary students is worth $53.66 a day or $9,230 a year. Grades 7 and 8 are worth $58.90 a day or $10,130 a year. High school is worth $62.07 a day or $10,676 a year.
“So, if we find 10 students that are noncompliant, we have $100,000 of cost avoidance,” Miller said.
According to a school board presentation, by mid-October the residency investigator had performed 224 residence checks and conducted 63 surveillance visits.
That had resulted in 26 families receiving letters notifying them they were out of compliance. Fifteen students had been “unenrolled.” More current numbers were not immediately available.
Observers say that is likely to get people’s attention.
“School districts get reputations as to whether or not they’re serious about providing services to residents only,” said Cathy Allie, a spokeswoman for the Raytown school district. “It only takes two or three families for that word to kind of spread.”
Since the 1990s, Raytown has had a residency officer whose primary job is to investigate such cases. The district checks each affidavit but does not seek reimbursement. The Grandview district has a part-time residency officer. The Blue Springs district warns people that submitting false information is a criminal misdemeanor, but it does not have a dedicated employee to verify residency.
Where are these interlopers coming from?
“It’s a pattern of no pattern,” said Miller of Lee’s Summit. “Some are from surrounding suburban districts, urban districts and rural districts. We have a large footprint. We are adjacent to a lot of different school districts.”
Among the investigative techniques the district uses are conducting record checks by computer, knocking on doors, talking to neighbors, phoning before or after school and staking out an address.
“Much of this investigative work was previously conducted by school principals and assistant principals,” the district said in a statement announcing its new policy. “The addition of the residency investigator allows these school leaders to focus more time on school administration and student learning.”
Sometimes, school patrons will alert the district to suspicious cases, such as a child who is always dropped off at a local bus stop in the morning but who otherwise is never seen in the neighborhood.
Lee’s Summit officials say they do not investigate students based on race or ethnicity. Checking every residency affidavit avoids that issue.
If the investigator discovers a case of nonresidency, the family gets a letter. “We give them 10 days to clarify their compliance or to unenroll,” Miller said.
The Shawnee Mission district typically allows the noncompliant student to finish the quarter or semester, said Leigh Anne Neal, district spokeswoman.
The Lee’s Summit and Shawnee Mission districts then bill the interlopers for school services rendered. If the parents do not pay, the school districts are prepared to take them to court. Neal could not recall such a case in Shawnee Mission. So far this year, Lee’s Summit has not filed any lawsuits.
“Residency is something that we take seriously, but we don’t have a single (enforcement) position,” Neal said.