Legitimizing tuition tab

EAST NEWARK –

The borough’s municipal government is pressing local school officials to get more aggressive in making sure that East Newark kids attending the borough’s single elementary school or Harrison High are, in fact, living in East Newark.

Under an ordinance adopted this past Dec. 9, any adult who knowingly:

• registers or enrolls an ineligible student for a free education, or,

• assists in the process of registering an ineligible student, or,

• permits his or her name, address or other residence to be used in the registration/ enrollment of an ineligible student, or,

• fails to disclose that the student enrolled in the household listed during registration is no longer a borough resident is subject to penalty.

Parents and/or guardians of students enrolled “shall be required to complete documentation intended to determine the student’s eligibility to attend ….”

Further, “all residents hosting other families, with a student enrolled in the Borough of East Newark School District or the Harrison High School District in their residence, must [advise either district] when such other families no longer reside with the resident.”

Under the new law, borough school officials are given the authority to enforce its provisions.

And those charged with violating the law “shall upon conviction … be sentenced to pay a fine of up to $2,000 and to the maximum lawful extent make restitution to the East Newark Board of Education” for calculated amounts of “tuition costs, investigation expenses and attorneys’ fees.”

Restitution ordered by the municipal court shall be paid to the school board of either East Newark or Harrison “within 30 days.” Any unpaid fines “may, upon the petition of [either school board] to the municipal court of East Newark, be converted into liens against the properties of the offending parties.”

Mayor Joseph Smith could not be reached to explain the rationale for the measure but East Newark School Superintendent/Principal Patrick Martin was able to shed some light on it.

During the summer of 2015, he said, the district conducted a full registration investigation touching on every household that enrolled a student, either in the borough elementary school or Harrison High.

It turned out, he said, that a handful of students were found to be residing in locations other than the borough, including one reportedly living at a Newark address.

In all those instances, Martin said, none of the students involved returned to classes as the local district’s responsibility.

Martin said the impetus behind the municipality’s action was that, “several individuals in the borough saw that other towns were giving fines if people registered kids improperly so this is more along the lines of following others’ leads, not as a reaction to something specific to East Newark.”

Still, Martin said, it’s just as important for the borough to be watchful since the cost of educating a borough student is “upwards of $10,000 per child per year.”

And for many school districts, the task of documenting a child’s noneligibility “has gotten more difficult and complicated,” said James Doran, personnel director for the Harrison Board of Education and a former superintendent in that district.

Issues like “family makeup, kids of divorced parents and cases of immigrant kids where a relative is placed in charge of the kids by court order” make it tough to prove non-residency, Doran said. “It’s no longer a black and white thing.”

Additionally, he noted, the federal McKinney-Vento Act mandating education assistance for homeless children can compel a school district to shoulder responsibility of educating youngsters even if they are not currently living in that district.

“It can take a team of people to get into this area and that takes additional tax dollars to pay for that,” he added.

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.