FAIR LAWN – After a 2016 district-wide investigation found 168 possible cases of residency fraud existed in Fair Lawn, 32 students have withdrawn from the district, Board of Education statistics show.
Mike Shansky, the director of the Community School who presented the results as part of the District Residency Program explained to a small crowd of residents on Nov. 16 that the district utilizes the services of VerifyResidence.com, an online verification service that helps school districts and government employers identify residency fraud. An in-house investigator contracted with the district then works to locate the homes of those students to confirm their address.
And, at the Nov. 16 board meeting, trustees unanimously passed a resolution to dis-enroll a student who the board determined was not domiciled in the district.
In the midst of Fair Lawn’s longstanding issue with overcrowding at the borough’s six elementary schools and two middle schools, Interim Superintendent Ernest Palestis said the investigation process, which cost the board “seven or eight thousand dollars” is “quite a payoff,” considering the amount to educate each child is about $15,000.
“That’s really a tremendous result,” Palestis said. “It is really important we protect our students, our taxpayers. That’s one way the Board of Education serves its own taxpayers. There are other boards that don’t get aggressive in residency because it could result in litigation. But that’s not the case here. Fair Lawn schools are for Fair Lawn kids.”
Of the 168 verifications that were conducted via the online service in the last two years, three students are currently up for disenrollment by the board. If the board decides to dis-enroll a student, the parent or guardian may appeal the decision by providing evidence supporting their residency, Shansky said. If the board votes to dis-enroll the student, they may seek back tuition.
Registration statistics, Shansky added, show that 10 cases are currently under investigation of students suspected of non-residency based on evidence. He said the 32 student withdrawals are beneficial, in part, to the Fair Lawn students who were affected by the soft borders policy, which the Board of Education adopted this past spring given the freed-up classroom space. The policy mandates new homeowners who purchased a house or signed a lease agreement after July 1 could be subject to a reassignment of their child, in grades K-5, to another elementary school if the one in their district is overcrowded. The policy does not apply to borough residents who lived in the borough before that date.
The district has been dealing with overcrowding for years. According to Palestis, the district has received 100 new students every year in the last five years and adopted a soft borders policy as a temporary remedy while the board encourages the taxpayers to vote in favor of a March 13 referendum asking voters to approve a $24 million expansion project at the two middle schools to accommodate rising enrollment.
As of September, there were 5,011 children enrolled in the Fair Lawn district and 18 students have been affected by the soft borders policy, according to Board Secretary Brooke Bartley.
“Everyone in New Jersey is having the same problem, overcrowding in the schools,” Shansky said. “We want to make sure that the students being educated are the ones in the district.”
Shansky said the district, at times, relies on tips from anonymous residents via an online Google form.
“The whole purpose of this is to protect the taxpayers and protect the students,” he said.
Though the reasons for parents or guardians fraudulently enrolling their children in the Fair Lawn School District is unclear, Interim Superintendent Ernest Palestis cited Fair Lawn’s high-achieving status as a possible reason. This past spring, Fair Lawn students ranked 19 out of 600 districts in New Jersey who scored highly on the Partnership and Assessment for College and Careers (PARCC) test. The test is administered to students in Grades 3 to 11 in English Language Arts and Math.
“Every year or so this issue comes up,” said Board Member Mike Rosenberg regarding the district’s residency issues. “I think now with doing what we’re doing, I think people are going to think twice about trying to get into [Fair Lawn] schools.”
For information on the registration process and investigation procedures, visit fairlawschools.org.