MILLBURN, NJ - In what he said will be a twice-a-year occurrence, Millburn Superintendent of Schools James Crisfield at Monday’s Board of Education meeting reported on the school district’s efforts to enforce its requirements that those who receive a free education in the township’s public schools must live in the township.
Crisfield, citing statistics for the period from Sept. 1 of last year to Oct. 17 of this year, said the total number of leads about student addresses needing verification totalled 146, of which 46 were discovered through use of the Verify Residency software program.
There were 109 leads resolved by paper check only, 18 by in-person surveilance and 19 found to be possible residency violations. Of the 19, 11 still are under investigation and eight were recommended for board of education hearings, according to the superintendent.
Of the eight cases subject to hearings, five were found to be students legally domiciled in the district and three were withdrawn or removed after hearings.
Crisfield added that there have been no students thus far from whom tuition has been sought and none from whom tuition has been received. He noted, however, that seeking tuition reimbursement requires a number of legal steps. There have been, however, two current students for whom past tuition due has been received.
The superintendent outlined district steps to verify residence thus far, including: the district residency verification process, credible leads (reports, for example, of students seen departing from trains arriving in Millburn every day), but not a simple examination of lists of all rentals in the township and use of the Verify Residence program and other steps outlined on the district website.
Crisfield said, however, that the district does not place a great deal of faith in census data resulting from the sampling of small groups where the margin of error is high.
The school official noted the board has stringently updated its Policy 5111, dealing with residency, and the district has a set of “very specific procedures that are rigorously implemented by trained professionals” such as police officers and those trained in data base management, who follow up on such items as notes of address changes from parents.
Facts matter, in the residency policy, he added. For example, the termination on one student found to be a non-resident does not result in a $19,000 savings as some residents have reported, according to Crisfield.
He noted the district will not employ paid informants or conduct removal of students in broad daylight for example-setting purposes.
All students new to the district, Crisfield said, must provide the following proofs of residency before being allowed to enroll: Primary—a copy of a lease, deed, current tax or mortgage statement or contract for a home; Secondary—a current utility bill or other legal mail addressed to the residence where they said they are domiciled, and proof of identity—a driver’s license is not acceptable. Those providing fraudulent proof are subject to legal action.
Among recent actions taken to strengthen the residency process, he said, were: Hiring a part-time registrar in 2013 to further standardize and improve efficiency and institution of a new verification process for address changes; 2014—re-verification of residency in the sixth and ninth grades, use of verifyresidence.com to help identify possible residency violations and initiation use of TLO, a nationally recognized and commonly used law enforcement database to help with investigations.
For 2015 and beyond, the superintendent said, the district will re-register aall students annually with new software with a safety enhancement and will have every family member certify online that the information on file in the district for them is current and they are domiciled where they say they live.
For 2015 only the district will re-verify the residency of all sutdents via documents collected as part of a package every family submits over the summer.
For 2016 and beyond the district will annually reverify residency with new copies of requisite documents for all incoming sixth- and ninth-graders and all kindergarten students.
Crisfield also said the district will use new software for better document management—for example, to follow up on expired leases and address changes.
Some board members, however, had different opinions about the district’s approach.
For example, Rupali Wadhwa said, the district should seek an authorized copy of a lease or other documentation of domicile and the district should not worry so much about the monetary cost but more about the “opportunity cost” because non-resident students could take spots in township schools that should be available to Millburn residents.
Raymond Wong, however, said all should be treated equally and all those attending the district schools should be asked to show the same documents.
He disgreed with the greater emphasis on opportunity costs, saying, “if you are not supposed to be here, you are not supposed to be here.”
Wadhwa replied that it was the job of the administration to assure that the township’s public schools existed to provide the best opportunity for all legitimate students domiciled in Millburn and it was the job of the board to provide oversight of this process.
Former board member Josh Scharf, a frequent critic of district efforts against non-residents, said Millburn does not provide the level of verification as many districts that are not as highly ranked academically.
For example, he said that Piscataway requires landlords for verify address changes of students in the schools, and, in many districts, if address change verifications are falsified landlords may have tor reimburse districts for tuition of non-resident students.
In Clifton, he added, a board candidate this year boast of finding 300 non-resident students.
Resident Marisa Christmas, however, said the district should not be discriminating against renters when verifying domiciles.
She wanted to know why her ex-husband, who owns a home, should not have to meet the same standards that she, as a renter, and her children have to meet.
Resident Betty Grosman, whose children graduated township schools, claimed there were not only opportunity costs—with students at Glenwood School attending two classes in trailers and some classrooms overcrowded—but also the trailers were costing the district $100,000 per year.
Grosman also wanted to know if 39 students from other communities, whose parents were paying tuition so they could attend Millburn schools, were taking spots which should be reserved for township residents.
Crisfield replied he knew of only two students in that category currently in township public schools.
On another matter, Matthew Stewart of the Glenwood section, who said he is a “secular humanitarian,” having no “superstititions,” said board memberx who support closing schools for religious or cultural holidays were violating the United States Constitution and removing rights from non-religious families.
He called for the board to reverse its procedures for petitions and online voting the board said it would use to determine whether to change school calendars to accommodate holidays such as Diwali and other religious or cultural celebrations.
Another resident agreed with Stewart, saying the personal observance days procedures raised many questions, and, she said, residents should have the option of voting to choose none of the holiday choices listed on personal observance day ballots but still having their votes count.
On another matter, former board member Jean Pasternak, who is a member of the state Task Force for Improving Special Education of Public School students, said the presence of Millburn Director of Special Education Juliana Kusz and Millburn Education Association president Lois Infanger at a recent meeting of the task force, caused a “chilling effect” on special education parents from the township at the West Orange meeting, making them afraid to speak out about the Millburn program.
Infanger replied that she attended the meeting at Crisfield’s invitation, issued in response by a complaint by Pasternak at the last township board meeting that Crisfield had not adequately notified the public about the meeting.
She added that there were about 40 people at the meeting, including herself, who were attendees, and about 24 people spoke, including four teachers, principals, board members and the head of speech and foreign language for the state. She also said she and Kusz went to listen and there was no intent to have a “chilling effect” on other participants.
Caroline Updyke, co-president of the PTOC, said she thought it was "ridiculous that the presence of Kusz would have a chilling effect," adding that "this would only be so if you believed Kusz was some sort of vindictive person keeping scores and taking names." Updyke defended Kusz and took offense "at her being characterized that way."
Also at Monday’s meeting, Pasternak repeated that she had heard that the president of the Deerfield PTO and head of the Millburn Education Foundation, both federal 501(c)(3) organizations, had requested participants at a Deerfield PTO meeting to consult them about choices in the Nov. 4 school board election and that an account of that incident had been repeated to her at another public forum.
Pasternak said, if this was true, it would endanger the organization’s tax exemptions.
She said, however, she had not actually heard the comments.
A number of PTO presidents, who said they were at the meeting in question, disputed Pasternak’s account, said she was unfairly attacking Amy Talbert, chair of the foundation and co-president of the Deerfield PTO, based on rumor.
School board members John Westfall-Kwong and Emily Jaffe, said that they were at both meetings in question and that Talbert had said nothing inappropriate.
Westfall-Kwong added that he found it “astounding” that a public official would attack a private individual based on a rumor.
He and a number of other PTO officers at Monday’s meeting said they were at the meetings referenced by Pasternak, and Talbert did nothing improper.
Updyke said, “PTO officers do not check in their first amendment rights when they take office” but noted that even so, the organization "takes great care to not give the appearance of endorsement—not because we have to, but out of respect to the fact we represent ALL the parents in a given school." She added, "The iRS has a very clearly delineated paragraph that specially states that their provision is not meant to squash the first amendment rights of the officers."
Board Vice-President Regina Truitt, who presided at Monday’s meeting, praised Talbert’s efforts over the years in raising money for the township public schools, and said Talbert exemplified what Millburn meant.
On another matter, Jaffe, who is board Finance Chairwoman, denied reports at Monday’s meeting by Scharf and Pasternak that said she had violated board bylaws by speaking about a finance matter that came up at the PTO candidate forum.
Jaffe said a reporter from The Item had asked her about a disagreement between two board candidates about district finances and that, in replying to a question from the reporter, only had agreed that one of the candidates correctly stated the board’s position.