After observing kids with backpacks running to catch CTA Blue Line trains and other children climbing out of cabs in the morning near Forest Park schools, some community members have questioned the regulation of District 91’s residency requirements.
But the notion that some out-of-district kids are sneaking into Forest Park schools – and getting away with it – is a large misperception, according to Superintendent Lou Cavallo.
“We always get this from people in the community, that we just let anybody in,” Cavallo said. “That is not true.”
Each student costs the district about $14,106 per year to educate, and since the bulk of school funding comes from local property taxes, students are required to live in Forest Park in order to attend Forest Park public schools. During registration, parents or guardians must show a document that proves residency, such as a real estate tax bill, a signed lease or a mortgage paper. Two additional records that show their name and address are also needed, such as a gas bill, vehicle registration or a bank statement. This year, Cavallo said they have tweaked the enrollment process to allow for a more thorough review of the papers.
“Under the law, we have to enroll kids first and then ask questions later,” he said. “What I can say very confidently is that we follow the letter of the law to the tee. We don’t make exceptions, and we don’t throw people out who have the right to be here.”
The district also employs a private investigation firm to look into specific cases whenever suspicions arise during the school year. At $45 an hour, the detectives will first look into public records, and if necessary, they will use surveillance tactics to find out where the students are living.
Simply reporting a relative’s Forest Park address during enrollment will not slide, Cavallo said.
“They have to have their bed, their clothing, their toys,” he said. “They have to live there. They just can’t use the address.”
During the first year the district hired private investigators, which was 2007, there were 25 cases investigated. Of the total, 12 students were cleared, meaning they did live in Forest Park, and 13 students were removed. In general, Cavallo said they “very seldomly” find students from Chicago, contrary to what most people assume. The students that are trying to get in are usually from other surrounding communities, he said.
As for this year, there are currently three pending investigations.
There are fewer cases this year, according to Cavallo, because they have improved the initial screening during registration and because word is out that “it’s harder to sneak in here than it once might have been.”
Even so, some residents believe that it is an apparent problem – based on their observations of seeing kids take the el or get dropped off in cabs a block away from the schools.
“There’s more than what the schools are willing to acknowledge,” said one village employee who asked to remain anonymous. “You should see them all hopping off the el. You don’t need a private detective to find out that these kids are hopping off the el and rushing to get to school in the morning. People have to be blind if they don’t accept that this is going on.”
This person said she personally knew two students who were reportedly using a relative’s address until they moved away for unrelated reasons.
“How are these people getting around the documentation? How are they using addresses that they don’t live at?” she asked.
Some residents have also said they’ve noticed many kids disappear over the summer, which they believe is suspicious if they all live in Forest Park.
According to Cavallo, people may not realize that there are many students in the district who do not have traditional housing situations. Some may be homeless or others could have split parents. In some cases, it’s a matter of daycare. The mother may work in the evenings, for example, so the kid takes the train to stay with an aunt while the mom is at work. He also pointed out that the district pays for taxis to take some students to and from school. These kids have special circumstances – they could be in special education or they have become homeless – and it is cheaper to hire cabs then to run a bus to where they are staying.
If anybody does suspect residency fraud, Cavallo encouraged people to report it. However, he cannot discuss the results of the individual investigations.
For the most part, the parents lying about their addresses are trying to get the best education for their kids, but they are “doing it the wrong way,” Cavallo said. Ultimately, he said, they will get caught and will be transferred if they don’t pay the nonresident tuition of $14,106 a year.
“I have had parents in tears, saying my son did horrible at the other school, he’s doing so good now, please don’t send him back. It’s hard to do,” Cavallo said. “I never like that, but the law is the law.”