TAMPA — For years it was an open secret among popular public schools in Florida.
Principals would lure families with strong arts programs, stellar college placement records and winning sports teams. And some families — who knows how many? — would sneak their kids into the school.
But now, faced with stringent class-size limits and the possibility of needing to redraw school boundaries, districts are being forced to crack down.
"There's a perception that parents lie to get their kids into certain schools, and that there is no consequence," said Hillsborough School Board member Candy Olson. "And that it's therefore unfair to parents who follow the rules."
Her district may soon lead the way in the Tampa Bay area in asking new arrivals for iron-clad proof of residence, such as a homestead exemption or rental lease. No longer would a simple electric or cable bill generally suffice.
Board members voiced tentative support for that idea at a Monday workshop and also asked staff to research the cost of launching audits to root out cheaters.
Collier County, which rezoned thousands of high school students last summer, has begun demanding a homestead exemption or lease. And it has sent investigators into neighborhoods to verify questionable claims.
"We need to know you are attached to the place you say you live in," attendance director Kevin Stockman told the Naples Daily News.
Pinellas deputy superintendent James Madden said the district has not considered using homestead exemptions to validate student addresses but didn't rule it out.
No Tampa Bay districts redrew school boundaries this fall to meet the final stage of the 2002 class-size amendment, which caps enrollment at 18 students in kindergarten through third-grade, 22 in fourth- through eighth-grades, and 25 in high school.
With many classes right at their limit, that may change. Pasco is already redrawing some boundaries to ease enrollment pressures, and both Pinellas and Hillsborough officials say they may be forced to follow.
But they're just getting started on the toxic issue of boundary jumping.
In one incident that prompted a lawsuit last year in Hernando, a district investigation found that at least 20 ineligible students had crossed over from neighboring Pasco County to attend a popular magnet school. Some had been attending district schools for years, but no one verified where they lived.
Hillsborough board members said they've gotten anonymous phone calls, e-mails and even whispered tips in the Publix checkout line about families who might not belong in their school zone. Such reports poured in last year after rumors of a possible boundary change at the popular and crowded Plant High, said member Olson.
"They said, 'People are lying,' and then people from other schools started calling," she added.
Such parents want districts to find the rule-breakers before any rezoning that might force legal families out of their schools, said Bill Person, general director of student placement.
His office handles around 50 instances of boundary-jumping every year, with schools acting on twice that many.
"The principal will call and say, 'I found someone, I'm withdrawing them,' " Person said. "If we have a school at 116 percent (of capacity) and we find a child isn't there legitimately, there's a very good chance we'll kick that child out."
On Monday, Hillsborough officials agreed to seek a homestead exemption or other hard proof of residence when students register for school, and make those requirements more prominent to discourage cheating.
But there was less agreement on how to find those who are dodging the rules. A full audit would cost around $17,000 for a high school of 2,000 students and $8,500 for an elementary school of 1,000, Person said.
Member Doretha Edgecomb said the district should continue to weigh other evidence of residence, such as an electricity bill, rather than risk harming low-income families.
But Olson suggested conducting a random audit to estimate the true scope of the problem before spending so much money in the 192,000-student district.
"Particularly before we go about changing boundaries," she added.