Is your kid in the wrong school? The district may soon may be on to you

Packed cafeterias like at Wiregrass Ranch High are one sign of the school overcrowding issue Pasco wants to address.
Packed cafeterias like at Wiregrass Ranch High are one sign of the school overcrowding issue Pasco wants to address.
Published Oct. 2, 2016

One by one on a recent Tuesday evening, parents tried to defuse the Pasco County School Board's plans to redraw attendance zones for their beloved schools.

Put out the kids who don't belong, they urged board members. They claimed hundreds of families had used false addresses to enter Seven Springs Middle and Mitchell High. They said they were gathering proof, and asking their Trinity neighbors to turn in out-of-zone students.

Despite the district's talk of growth and school overcrowding, they said, the new boundaries aren't needed.

"It is common knowledge there is a large school choice population as well as a significant illegal presence in the school," parent Mark Honor told board members later via email. "It would seem logical to formally establish and eliminate these issues first."

School districts have not made a habit of regularly double-checking student addresses over the years. Parents typically provide documents when first enrolling, and never submit them again. So schools can't say with certainty how many kids don't belong.

But as competition for seats heats up, often driven by Florida's population growth, some districts are becoming more vigilant about who is in their schools — and Pasco may be the latest to join them.

The pressure is coming from families like those in Trinity, who want to know folks who skirt the rules won't benefit while those following the rules get bounced.

Acting upon such concerns, the Broward County school district reviewed every student's address in two of its bursting schools this past spring.

"We wanted to make sure we were doing our due diligence to try and find people who may not be at that school before we did anything drastic," said Patrick Sipple, director of demographics.

The district used software to scour public databases and see what families listed as their most recent address. Then staff searched for discrepancies.

If a parent's address did not match existing information, Sipple said, they could provide updated documentation and explanations. Otherwise, the district would withdraw the children and offer them their zoned school or open choice options.

Though time-consuming, Sipple said, the effort worked. About 60 students were removed from the elementary school, enough to hold off a boundary change.

Broward also empowered principals to request student reregistration, and the district launched a tip line to report falsified addresses.

That's the approach many Pasco parents want.

Activist Heide Janshon told the Pasco board she would struggle to tell her children "we are banishing you to another school because of a line we have to draw … but people who come here illegally are allowed to stay."

The targeted audit idea makes some in the Pasco district squeamish, though. They worry about treating certain groups differently than others, or supporting a witch hunt.

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Such concerns have caused Hillsborough County to stay away from such a program. "We're really not in the business of going around and checking everyone's addresses if they've provided us with the appropriate documents," district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said.

Pasco officials, ready to take some action, are looking at a method closer to what Pinellas County does.

Pinellas officials recognized four years ago that many families had never updated their registration information, and decided to collect updated documents whenever students change schools. The district revised its list of acceptable documentation at the same time.

Pasco officials this week began discussing a similar process.

Spokeswoman Linda Cobbe noted that schools annually collect emergency contact and bus stop updates, but those don't require proof. So now, officials are considering asking for that proof with every school move. And they're looking to revise the list of accepted documents.

Seven Springs Middle principal Chris Dunning suggested, for instance, requiring an unexpired lease with two months of canceled checks or receipts, instead of taking a lease form only.

Board members sounded willing to take such steps.

"I think we could tighten up a bit, especially when it's such a hot issue," board member Allison Crumbley said.

Board member Steve Luikart said schools have received such complaints for years. They usually deal with situations quietly, he said, getting kids who don't belong out and then enforcing the rule.

Principals agreed, and said they try to be sensitive to student needs when they discover infractions, which usually are a failure to report when they moved.

School registrars often catch some at the start of a new year, said Long Middle principal Christine Wolff, who figured about 10 to 20 cases a year slip through. Unless it's the fourth quarter, she said, the children are told to leave.

"I can't remember the last time I had one that was flat-out lying," said Carin Hetzler-Nettles, Wesley Chapel High principal. "I think they don't divulge because they want to keep attending this school. Sometimes, quite honestly, they just don't think about it."

Luikart said the district should step up its efforts, but with as little disruption to students' lives as possible.

Such moves might not satisfy the demands of parents who dislike rezoning. District officials have said boundary changes must happen regardless because of growth. But they could improve a system, officials said, that has been ignored.

In the meantime, board member-elect Colleen Beaudoin sounded hopeful that the "us-versus-them" atmosphere that's arisen with the call for families to turn in other families will fade.

"It creates not a very good culture for students," she said, "and I hate for it to be a disruption at any school."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or Follow @jeffsolochek.