Aspen schools play hardball with residency
August 27, 2012
ASPEN – The Aspen School District continues to discover students enrolling in its schools with falsified residency documents. The problem has become so concerning, in fact, that district administrators have been forced to call in law enforcement and consult their attorneys.
“This is a very difficult situation. What we want do is educate kids, not police enrollment,” said Aspen Superintendent Dr. John Maloy. “But it’s an ongoing battle that I don’t see going away anytime soon, so we have to take action.”
According to Maloy, the district has already conducted more than 20 residency-related investigations this school year, which began last week for high schoolers and Monday for other students. Investigations are launched any time questions of residency arise or if proper residency documents are not provided.
In these cases, parents are called in for an interview. If the concern persists, school resource officers – which include an Aspen police officer and a Pitkin County Sheriff’s deputy – are called in to conduct home visits.
In addition, the school district has been forced to consult with its attorneys after some district administrators received “threats” related to residency investigations. Attorneys have also been consulted about instances where parents attempt to hand over guardianship of their children to in-district families for the sole purpose of having the children attend the Aspen schools.
“It continues to amaze me the lengths people will go to … the loopholes they will try to find,” said Maloy. “It’s a double-edged sword: We are proud of our schools, and that out-of-district families want their children to attend them, but our first responsibility is to provide the best education possible to students within our district.”
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While downvalley students are allowed to attend the Aspen public schools, they must apply and be admitted as out-of-district students on a space-available basis. If there is not room, they are put on a wait list.
According to the school principals, Aspen’s middle and high schools are not accepting any new out-of-district students this school year. Aspen Elementary School has a waiting list and will determine if spots are available once school begins and all students have reported to school.
It is a situation that has led some families to lie about where they live. Last spring, the district confirmed that at least a dozen students were enrolled – or attempted to enroll – in the Aspen public schools using falsified residency documents. Those students were disenrolled or were told that they would be at the end of the school year if their families did not move to Aspen.
All told, Maloy said each school building last year reported having to deal with approximately 20 residency-related questions, though “not necessarily all had falsified their proof of residency.”
The result is that school administrators are put in the undesirable position of policing enrollment, rather than educating kids.
“I have great sympathy for these kids. They are being put in the middle of a very adult situation and that is incredibly difficult,” said Aspen High principal Kim Martin, who took the helm at AHS this year. “And while I understand that these parents believe they are just advocating for their children, this is not life or death.”
Aspen Middle School principal Tom Heald agreed, noting the negative message that lying to school officials sends to impressionable kids.
“It’s always disappointing to see parents modeling devious behavior,” he said. “Like we teach the kids, honesty is the best policy. Always.”
This year, the district required all students to submit two forms of proof of residency to enroll in school, including a notarized lease agreement through the end of the school year or mortgage statement and a utility bill. The documents had to be current and contain the physical address in the name of the parent or legal guardian.
“The school district may at any time demand evidence of a student’s residence. … Residency is defined as living 100 percent of the time at the submitted address during the school calendar year,” states the district’s printed policy.
The policy goes on to explain that that if a student or parent “deliberately misrepresents residency” that the student will be withdrawn under the same policies and procedures as “student suspension and expulsion.”
Such action by the school is not the extent to which families can penalized. Falsifying residency is a crime punishable by law – and is not unheard of in other school districts. In fact, an Ohio mother of two received a 10-day jail sentence for altering residency documents; in other places, parents are being fined, sued and otherwise punished for lying about where they live to gain admission to a certain school.
Maloy and his administrative team say they do not want to go down this path; what they want is for families to play by the rules.
“There is nothing to be gained by lying,” he said. “We hope that by getting the message out there that we are taking this issue seriously, we will see the number of people trying to skirt the system go down.”