District scrutinizing addresses

Some people use false addresses so a child can attend a favored school in Alachua County.

Published: Monday, January 3, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 3, 2005 at 12:14 a.m.
It's an address game some families play. Determined to get their child into their school of choice, a family will register the child under a false address, when in reality they live outside the attendance boundary for that school.
But increasingly, the Alachua County school district's zoning office is investigating suspect addresses, checking for families who try to fool staff and con their way into favored schools.
"Any time a parent does it, they're thinking we'll never know," said Martha Dean, the district's zoning services specialist.
Dean said false addresses are a problem at every level - elementary, middle and high school. The issue has taken on more importance as several schools experience crowding.
Many parents see the deception as necessary to their children's futures. They act based on academic reputation and the school's closeness to jobs or child care.
"A lot of the time, they want to be here," said Diana Lagotic, principal of Norton Elementary. "That's the positive side of it."
When families break residency rules they typically use borrowed or old addresses.
Dean's office looks into as many as 200 false-address suspicions a year. Of those, about a third are revealed as bad addresses, she said.
In one memorable recent case, the suspected parents kept insisting they lived in the Lawton Chiles Elementary school zone.
They even produced a utilities bill showing they lived at a home within the Chiles zone.
"I drove out to the home and knocked on the door," Dean said. A family lived there, but it wasn't the right one, she said.
Dean found out that the family had bought a rental home, registered the utilities in its name and rented it out to another family.
"They felt they should have their choice of school," Dean said. "They were willing to go through the expense of doing that."
After being discovered, the parents were sent a letter at their real address giving them five days to register their child at the correct school.
Red flags Ultimately, Dean said many families get away with using false addresses if a school does not see a warning sign and alert the zoning office. Some signs of false addresses are blatant, others are more difficult to spot.
"The main thing that tips the school off is if the child starts having tardies," Dean said.
When schools suspect a student may be enrolled under a false address, they forward their concern to the zoning office.
"If they're tardy a lot, they're coming from farther away or having trouble getting here," Lagotic said.
"Tardies impact not only the child who's (late) . . . but the teacher who has to stop and help that child catch up."
Families are free to apply for a zoning transfer if they move during the school year. But sometimes parents move during the summer and don't want to change schools, Lagotic said.
"It's a comfort level the parents have," she said.
Other warning signs include returned mail or emergency contact cards with changes in phone numbers from the previous year.
Sometimes the kids will tell school staff. Other times parents will tell on one another.
Parents griped about families who may have been falsifying addresses at School Board meetings last year, when crowding and school rezoning was at issue.
"I had parents that would tell me that so-and-so lived out of our school zone and is using a false address," said Jeffrey Means, principal of High Springs Community School.
The High Springs school is located close to the county lines that separates Alachua County from Columbia and Gilchrist counties.
Growth in the High Springs community means the school has fewer seats for families who live outside of Alachua County.
"Because of the growth, crowding has become an issue," Means said.
But parents who may live across the county line have tradition at the school because they attended the school as children, Means said.
"We have areas in both Columbia and Gilchrist (where) they live across the county line but they have a High Springs phone number and a High Springs address," he added. "In the family's mind, they're part of the community."
Dean said she received an anonymous letter last year that named 15 families attending High Springs under false addresses.
To verify addresses, Dean will check the names against records for the utilities companies, housing authorities, and the Alachua County property appraiser.
For parents with multiple homes, the one where they receive the property tax break is the one that the district counts for the family's home address.
Homeowners are eligible to receive a property tax break, known as a homestead exemption, from the state.
"You can only have a homestead exemption on one home," Dean said.
Parents who lack a driver's license or utilities to prove their address must sign a sworn statement stating where their child lives.
Lagotic said schools need to have the proper parent contact information on file - for the student's benefit.
"It's really important for the schools to have the correct address of parents - for safety issues," Lagotic said.
"The parents may have the best intention," she said. "(But a false address) is not accurate information."
Douane D. James can be reached at (352) 374-5087 or jamesd@gvillesun.com.

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