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They’re like classroom chameleons. Blending in with others, some even riding the school bus and taking part in afternoon extra-curriculars. But scores of out-of-district students are likely attending Oldham County Schools illegally –– violating board policy and contributing to the district’s growing pains.
Most out-of-district students come from Jefferson County and neighboring districts, according to officials. But with student populations in Oldham County already bursting at the seams, some say these “district dodgers” must be detained.
Outed sometimes by soccer-mom tipsters or kindergarten confessors, school officials say they’re aggressively targeting parents who fraudulently cross district lines to enroll their kids in Oldham County Schools.
Last year, district officials say they investigated 104 cases of out-of-district students, suspected of illegally attending a school here.
According to district figures, 54 of those students were caught district dodging and forced to withdraw. Parents are assessed tuition at a rate of $18 for each day an out-of-district student attends school in Oldham County without district approval.
One family, whose two students fraudulently attended Oldham schools for two semesters, faced a nearly $7,000 tuition bill from the district last year. Officials forced another family, who claimed their child lived on a houseboat registered in Oldham County, to withdraw the student and pay up after producing a $0 winter heating bill for the unit.
“That obviously wasn’t the child’s primary residence,” Assistant Superintendent Dan Orman said. “I don’t put this in the category of robbery. But this is a serious issue. It’s a priority issue for us now.”
Some parents allegedly use fake leases, list bogus guardians and falsify residency-verification documents to skirt the system. Orman said district officials are investigating at least five active cases of education theft.
The district relies heavily on tips from parents or others and acts swiftly on those suspected of fraudulently gaining access to Oldham County schools.
Officials sometimes pay early morning home visits to addresses believed to be abused for residency purposes.
“We’ll knock on the door to see who answers,” Orman said. If the child’s not there at 6 a.m., Orman said it’s likely not a student’s legal primary residence. If officials accumulate enough proof against district defrauders, offenders are busted and attempts to retroactively collect tuition are enforced.
“We’re not a law enforcement agency. We’re not in a game of ‘gotcha’,” Orman said, but he maintains the practice must cease.
“It’s difficult to look a parent in the eye once they’ve been caught,” he added. “They’ve been teaching a 7-year-old to lie about where they live. I empathize with them, but they need to follow the policy.”
That policy, consistent with the Kentucky Board of Education, insists students enrolled in public school must attend in his or her respective district.
Nevertheless, district officials claim some parents will drive their children from as far as Mt. Washington and the far reaches of Trimble County to attend an Oldham County school.
Goshen Elementary is among the most targeted by out-of-district “poachers,” according to school officials.
It’s less than two miles away from neighboring Jefferson County and parents living in Prospect subdivisions – an area whose zip code straddles county lines – will often drive their child across district boundaries to attend school.
Enrollment at Goshen, a school built for 700 students, is about 50 kids above capacity this year, Principal Candace Sellars said. That’s one reason why attendance must be limited to kids who legitimately live in the district.
“The problem is parents that bring their kids here don’t have a full understanding of how that impacts other children with overcrowding,” Sellars said. “We don’t want to create large class sizes if it’s not needed.”
WHY IT’S A PROBLEM
Oldham County’s school district consists of a preschool, nine elementary schools, four middle schools, three high schools, an alternative school, a career center and a center for the arts and community education.
Student enrollment has more than doubled in recent years, according to information on the district’s Web site. It estimates the number of students in preschool through grade 12 at 11,250.
Between 300 to 400 new students were admitted to the district this year, according to district reports. Schools are allotted a stipend for each one of those students by the federal government. That money helps cover the costs of educating each student.
While the impact is slightly insignificant on a small scale, students attending a school outside their district are robbing their home school of federal money.
Additionally, out-of-district students are burdening homeowners in the district in which they attend. That’s because more taxpayer money is needed to offset the cost of educating outsiders.
As Sellars said, climbing enrollments from out-of-district kids leads to overcrowding. It further creates demands for costly new facilities. That’s why any student wishing to attend outside their home district needs special permission for admittance under what’s called a non-resident agreement. The inter-district pacts –– nearly impossible to come by –– allow out-of-district students to attend a school of their choice, as long as both districts agree.
“Parents generally don’t realize these non-resident agreements are in force,” said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education. “The government can’t force schools to offer space for students not in their district.”
Gross said state education officials sometimes field questions from parents asking if they can just drop their children off at the nearest school – or transfer to a school offering newer facilities or more extracurricular activities.
“The answer is no,” Gross said, because moving a student from one school to another disrupts spending formulas and forces districts to compete financially.
Gross rejects critics who argue the system puts money above a student’s right to the quality educational opportunities of their choice.
“Every district should offer a quality education,” Gross said. “Period.”
That’s a hard point to sell to district outsiders, lured to Oldham County because the district consistently ranks as one of the top-performing districts in the state.
And while Orman acknowledges parents who bring their kids here illegally are just looking out for their child’s education, he says they often fail to realize the larger lesson in life.
“They’re teaching their children that lying is okay,” he said.
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