PERRY — Anyone who has falsified an address in order to enroll a student in Houston County schools could face stiff penalties, Houston County Superintendent David Carpenter and Houston County District Attorney Kelly Burke said during a joint news conference Wednesday.
The two entities are banding together and giving offenders until Sept. 11 to file the correct paperwork and return students to their zoned schools. Sept. 14, the district attorney’s office will begin submitting unresolved cases to a grand jury. Violators could face up to $1,000 in fines, felony charges, one to five years in jail and restitution charges to the school system.
The problem comes from both out-of-county students enrolling in Houston County schools, Carpenter said, as well as students within Houston County who are attending schools outside of their designated zones.
“It is not fair for our taxpayers to pay to educate those who live outside of Houston County, as well as those who reside in Houston but want their children to attend an out-of-zone school,” Carpenter said.
Officials grew suspicious after seeing a major spike in Affidavits of Residence on file — 820 this year, up from approximately 100 when they were created in 2005 in Georgia to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
The Affidavits of Residence are used for students in the Houston County school system who are living in the home of a family member other than their parent or guardian.
In order for the form to be valid, it must be signed by both the parent or guardian and the homeowner or renter of the residence.
Houston County employees who live outside the county are allowed to enroll their children in the school system, but they are required to pay tuition.
Those who submit paperwork with the correct addresses and return to their designated school districts and zones will not be prosecuted, Burke said, but they could face fines up to $3,000 per child in back restitution charges for every year the child was falsely enrolled.
Burke said those who are prosecuted face felony charges, as the information is filed with a government agency and the person stands to benefit from the false information, in violation of state law.
AN EXPENSIVE PROBLEM
Last year, Houston County schools spent an average of $11,970 per student, with $3,000 of that coming from local taxes.
The school system has seen explosive growth in the last few years. Enrollment is up 651 students over last year, which is consistent with growth from previous years, Carpenter said.
Houston County now serves nearly 27,000 students. In addition, Houston County students attending schools outside of their zones are putting a strain on the system by forcing officials to transfer teachers to serve student population demand.
“We’re opening schools as fast as possible,” Carpenter said. “With 650 (additional) kids a year, that’s a school a year. We’re not building a school a year.”
Houston County students not attending the school for which they are zoned have options in place to attend other schools in the system, though the deadlines to apply to both programs have already passed, Carpenter said.
Georgia House Bill 251, passed in May, allows students to transfer to other schools within their system as long as there is room for students at the school receiving the transfer.
Also, students attending “Needs Improvement” schools, as designated by the state, are entitled to request a school transfer under No Child Left Behind.
This year, for example, students zoned to attend Northside High School had the option to transfer to Warner Robins High School or Houston County High School, said Beth McLaughlin, director of community and school affairs for the Houston County Board of Education.
Carpenter said Houston County has no plans to charge tuition to allow out-of-county residents to remain in the school system, citing difficulties serving existing students.
In Laurens County, for example, the school system charges $300 per family, per year for out-of-county students, said Laurens County superintendent Jerry Hatcher.
Bibb County also allows nonresidents to attend by paying an out-of-county tuition fee, though some conditions apply.
Burke described complaints to his office from some parents who have seen lines of cars with out-of-county license plates as they are picking up their elementary school children. He encouraged people to contact his office with information about possible violations.
“There are good people with good intentions for their children, but they aren’t following the law,” Burke said.
Burke said he understands why students are enrolling in Houston County schools from surrounding counties, but they are a strain on the system without contributing to the tax base. “We’re proud of our school system and proud of our results,” Burke said. “We’re obviously attractive, but what’s also attractive is moving to the county and following the rules.”
A WIDESPREAD ISSUE
The problem of false enrollment is not confined to Houston County.
The Fayette County school system has taken similar action to respond to an influx of out of system students, Burke said.
In Henry County, a Clayton County woman and her brother-in-law each were sentenced to five years’ probation, 100 hours of community service and ordered to pay fines after she falsely used his address to enroll her son at Luella High School.
Elisabeth Cannon, a Bibb County resident and the mother of a fifth-grader at Alexander II Magnet School, worries that the demand on the system’s magnet schools, especially from out-of-county students, may prevent her daughter from attending Miller Magnet Middle School next year.
Cannon said she knows of parents who do not live in Bibb County but register for utilities with family members in Bibb County to get around the issue.
To combat this, Cannon feels that Bibb County should begin investigating the problem and schools should check parent and guardian addresses more comprehensively.
Just as Alexander II requires parent volunteers to undergo a background check, she believes all parents in Bibb County schools should undergo one to verify their residences.
While Cannon feels that the measures Houston County is taking are extreme, she says the actions are a step in the right direction.
“(The parents) know it’s wrong to lie, period,” she said.
“I don’t know about prosecution, but something has to be done.”
To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.