In a recent community meeting about crime, Mayor Anthony Calderone and Village Administrator Michael Sturino agreed with residents who complained that kids who did not live in Forest Park were attending Forest Park public schools.
Sturino complained that some other districts do a better job with residency issues. District 91 Superintendent Randolph Tinder did not take too kindly to those remarks and strongly defends the district's work on the issue.
"If they have any questions, the proper place to do it is at a school board meeting, not a crime meeting," said Tinder.
Tinder said Dist. 91, and often he personally, investigates all allegations of non-residents attending Dist. 91 schools, adding that the perception of large numbers of non-residents in Forest Park schools is simply incorrect.
"It does irritate me that folks say we don't do anything about this because two-thirds of the time these allegations are incorrect," said Tinder.
Last year Dist. 91 investigated 24 allegations involving false residency and found that in 16 cases, Forest Park residency was verified. In five cases, the child's residency was not verified and the student left the district. In three other cases, a final determination is pending but those students are also no longer attending district schools Tinder said. In previous years the numbers were similar, Tinder said, with about two-thirds of students investigated cleared for residency.
For more than 20 years, James Murray, who writes a handwriting column for this newspaper, was Dist. 91's residency investigator in his capacity as a social worker for the district, and he continued for one year after his retirement. For the last two years, Tinder has taken on that responsibility.
"There isn't anybody in house who had the background or interest and time," said Tinder when asked whether it was unusual for the superintendent to assume that responsibility.
The work takes up a lot of Tinder's time.
"I spend as much time on that one issue as any other issue that I do," said Tinder. "We do our best to investigate the referrals that come to us. We have spent a lot of money doing surveillance of people. We do videotaping. We knock on doors. We do our due diligence."
For especially difficult cases, the district brings in a retired FBI agent who also works on residency cases for Oak Park schools.
Mayor Anthony Calderone said, "[Tinder] needs to be less defensive. Maybe he has some problems there. It's a serious enough issue that you should devote a reasonable amount of financial resources to it."
Murray, meanwhile, said the issue has been around for a long time.
"It's been an issue forever," said Murray. "There never was one complaint we didn't investigate thoroughly."
Murray estimated that during his time on the job, on average of 5 percent of the students were investigated and maybe two percent were found not to live in Forest Park.
Tinder emphasized that with so many split families, determining residency can be difficult. Kids may split time between different homes, one in Forest Park and one elsewhere. He said that just because a child may be dropped off at school in a car with a sticker from another town, it doesn't mean the child lives outside Forest Park.
"We go by where they sleep," said Tinder.
On the last day of school this past year, a middle school student was involved in a fight and his mother was called. She crashed her car in Forest Park and her car did not have a Forest Park sticker. That child will not attend school in Dist. 91 this year, according to Tinder.
Parents or guardians must provide proof of residency when they register their children for school. Homeowners must present the title to their house, sales contract, tax bill or mortgage statement. Renters must present a lease agreement or rent receipt. In addition, both homeowners and renters must provide three other forms of proof of residency from a list that includes such identification as a driver's license or state ID, voter's registration, current utility bill, payment receipt for a Forest Park vehicle sticker, credit card statement, or payroll check.
"We demand numerous proofs of residence," said Tinder.
Enrolling students in a district where they are not legal residents is a class C misdemeanor criminal offense, punishable by a $500 fine or up to 30 days in jail. Parents can also be legally liable for tuition payments for the time their children spent in school, but Tinder said that he did not know of any cases where Dist. 91 pursued parents for tuition.