Schools Crack Down on Boundary Hopping

Sending your child to a school outside the district where you live can lead to arrest or a $5,000 fine.


The case of Yolanda Hill, a mother from Rochester, N.Y., who faces criminal charges that she lied about where she lived so that four of her children could attend schools in the suburbs, is renewing attention on a problem that plagues school districts nationwide. It's known as "boundary hopping." Parents will use a false address to enroll their children in schools they think are better or safer than those in their home district.

Officials with the Greece Central School District in New York say Hill used her mother's address in the district to register her kids there, even though they actually lived in Rochester. Hill's mother, Mary Marshall, says her daughter only wanted her kids to receive a good education and didn't know she was breaking the law. Now her daughter could go to prison. She has been charged with third-degree grand larceny and first-degree offering a false instrument for filing, both felonies. Her case goes to a grand jury in March. Hill's attorney could not be reached for comment for this article.

While student boundary hopping is not uncommon, it's rare for school districts to seek criminal charges against parents. Hill's case suggests that districts are getting fed up. From California to Connecticut, school boards are adopting tougher measures to stop "sneak-ins," who, they say, drain precious resources from the district's proper student body, especially now, when dollars are scarce. Many districts spend tens of thousands of dollars each year to purge these students from their enrollment lists. Their strategies include setting up anonymous tip lines, hiring private investigators who will stake out bus stops and follow students to their real homes, and blanketing the community with bulletins that warn about the consequences of submitting a fake address. In Broward County, Fla., for example, the school board agreed to put up posters this year that read, "False address can lead to arrest." Student registration forms now warn parents that lying about where they live can cost them their homestead tax exemption or even lead to a perjury charge and jail time.

For Broward and other top-performing school systems, a lot is at stake. Taxpaying residents of those districts say it's not fair to subsidize the education of a child whose parents don't pay taxes in the district. They worry about the impact on class sizes, test scores, and programs such as special education. Sometimes, this community outrage does prompt tougher enforcement of residency rules. In 2006 in Grosse Pointe, Mich., a wealthy suburb of Detroit, about 3,000 parents who signed a petition pressured the school board to spend $8,000 to reregister all 9,000 students in the district. At the end of its investigation, the district found only 40 nonresident students.

Jay Worona, general counsel to the New York State School Boards Association, says districts have a legal obligation to enforce residency requirements and investigate fraud, and it's also in their interest to make examples out of parents who break the law. "If a district was to gain a reputation of not being particularly vigilant, there might be an invitation to other parents [living outside the district] to go ahead and bring your child in," Worona says.

Authorities in Greece, a large suburb east of Rochester, arrested Hill, 33, on February 9. Greece public schools serve roughly 13,000 students and consistently post strong scores on state tests. In contrast, the Rochester City School District serves more than twice as many students, most of whom live below the federal poverty line, and has a poor record of performance, especially at the high school level. Kevin Degnan, a former law enforcement officer who now works for the Greece school district, conducted the investigation that led to Hill's arrest. He spent mornings and afternoons staking out bus stops and the house in Greece where Hill said she and her children lived. Degnan alleges that only the kids' grandmother lived at the house. According to Degnan, the children live with Hill in Rochester and commuted to Greece every morning, waiting at bus stops and then heading to their respective schools. District officials estimate the cost of educating Hill's four children since the beginning of the school year at $28,000. Degnan says the district had no choice but to seek charges against Hill, who he says was given several warnings. "I feel sorry for the children," Degnan says. "I don't feel sorry for the parents."