An online registration system that was supposed to make it easier for both parents and school administrators to enter and retrieve information and residency documents has proved to be a headache, at least temporarily, in Riverside Elementary School District 96.
In particular, a glitch on the back end of the registration software has made it difficult for the district’s registrar to match residency documents with students who were enrolled this summer, leaving open questions about whether particular students are actually residents of the district.
However, Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye said the problem is being resolved with the help of the software company and, while it is taking longer to collate all the residency information, it’s there.
“It’s caused us to take a look at our process,” Ryan-Toye said during a recent phone interview of the difficulty in organizing the residency documentation. “It’s something in any community that you want to be careful about.”
The specter of non-resident students sneaking into the district is a frequent concern for parents, particularly in high-achieving school districts where property taxes going to schools are hefty.
“I think the feeling from the general public that we’ve heard as board members is that it’s being abused,” said board member Rachel Marrello during a discussion of the registration hiccups at the Sept. 21 board meeting.
But while the district has had some trouble sorting that information out early on in the 2016-17 school year, Ryan-Toye wanted to assure the community that she doesn’t believe it’s a widespread problem.
In a Sept. 19 memo to the school board giving an overview of registration and residency information, Ryan-Toye told the school board that the district encountered “obstacles” related to the registration process.
But she didn’t think those obstacles have affected the district’s ability to conduct residency checks if there’s a question regarding a particular student.
“The obstacles were related to the process of transitioning registered student documents into the student-enrollment information system,” Ryan-Toye wrote. “Although this may have contributed to some of the delay in capturing final enrollment numbers, we do not believe it had a negative impact on residency determinations.”
At the Sept. 21 school board meeting, Ryan-Toye told board members that very few families leave the district each year because they have been found in violation of residency requirements.
In 2015-16, according to Ryan-Toye, it was one or two families. In others it could be three or four. Often the families voluntarily leave once they learn the district is investigating their residency claims.
The amount of money D96 has spent on residency investigations has increased in recent years, from a little less than $3,000 in 2013 to about $9,150 in 2015-16. The school district uses a firm called National Investigations to cross-check databases with residency documents for all new students.
If there are any questions, the firm will conduct surveillance and even knock on doors early in the morning or late at night to see if a child actually lives at the residence.
The school does have nine students enrolled, out of a total of 1,700, who qualify to attend D96 schools because they are considered “homeless.” That doesn’t mean they are living on the streets, said Ryan-Toye. They often are students who may have lived in D96 or have arrived in the district due to circumstances that forced them out of their homes and into the homes of relative or friends.
By law, the school district has to accommodate those students to provide continuity of education, Ryan-Toye said.
Marrello suggested the school district create a hotline or online system where residents suspicious of a student’s actual residence can relay their concerns. However, other board members felt that went a bit too far.
“We’re going into this with an assumption that this is happening when I certainly, as a board member, am not convinced of that,” said board member Lynda Murphy.
Board members did agree that they would like to see more information about how many residency investigations the district conducts each year and how other school districts approach the subject.
Ryan-Toye is expected to deliver that information for discussion at a future board meeting.
“We need avenues to detect what the risk is and how to prevent it,” Marrello said. “Plus, it gives us credibility to say this is an avenue in which the public can contact us.”
Ryan-Toye agreed that the district’s approach to residency checks could be tweaked, but she also said there has to be balance.
“It’s a careful balance of [demonstrating that] you want to welcome new families [with saying] but you need to live here,” Ryan-Toye said.