VerifyResidence.com runs computerized searches to confirm the residency information that parents provide to schools.
“Boundary hoppers”—parents who falsify their residency so their children can attend a particular school—can strain already cash-strapped districts. But short of sending the assistant principal to knock on students’ doors, how can administrators pinpoint wrongfully enrolled students? A new technology-based solution claims it can help.
The online service VerifyResidence.com runs computerized searches to confirm the residency information that parents provide to schools, potentially saving districts time and money, its creator says.
When large numbers of students attend illegally, schools feel practical budget pressures as they are forced to support more students than expected. The problem involves not only concern about tax dollars, but also the fact that “schools really need accurate contact [information], because they plan growth and feeder patterns based on that,” said Sonja Trainor, a senior staff attorney with the National School Boards Association’s General Counsel.
To create a residency verification service for schools and government employers, VerifyResidence.com co-owner Jimmie Mesis combined his three talents—30 years of fraud investigation experience, expertise in “finding people” as a private detective, and computer programming skills. The result, an automated residency auditing search, matches the information that parents give to schools with data available in consumer fraud databases.
These databases “accumulate tremendous amounts of public information,” Mesis said, “and access is limited only to individuals who have a very specific need. … Ours is the detection of fraud [in school enrollment].”
To begin the search process, a district would provide VerifyResidence.com with parents’ names and addresses. The search can tell whether the address that parents have given the school matches the information listed about them in the consumer databases. Within 72 hours, the search can produce a Residency Audit Report, which is a spreadsheet indicating whether the parents’ data are a “match” or “no match.”
“If it says ‘no match,’ we’re not saying that the student doesn’t live there,” Mesis said. “There are a number of legitimate reasons it wouldn’t match,” such as a change in marriage status or even a simple typo.
Schools then can request a second search, this time including not only the parents’ names and address, but also their dates of birth. Even if the second search turns up a “no match” result, the case is “still not fraudulent, just suspect,” Mesis said.
The final step of the residency verification process is for a school authority—such as a chief attendance officer, school district police employee, or district administrator—to conduct interviews and an in-person investigation. “The only way to determine the actual domicile of a student is by surveillance,” Mesis said.
Pricing for the searches are based on the total number of students, averaging from $15 to $20 per student for small districts to as low as $1.50 per student for very large districts with hundreds of thousands of students.
Under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), there are limits to the ways schools can release personal information about students and their families. But residency auditing services like VerifyResidence.com can access parents’ information because as contractors, they are doing work that normally would be done by the school district, said NBSA attorney Trainor.
Besides privacy, another concern about residency auditing is fairness. “We want to make sure that investigations are not just looking into one type of student,” Trainor said.
The districts most vulnerable to boundary hoppers tend to be high-performing, affluent districts that border poorer districts. Because the search audits the entire student roster in a batch, the service can help schools avoid accusations of investigating certain students based on class or racial bias, Mesis said.
Across the nation, states and districts vary in how they choose to handle boundary hopping. In California, Napa Valley Unified School District hired a former administrator specifically to investigate enrollment after about 300 out of 680 high school freshmen left one school for another in a single school year, said the Napa Valley Register.
In Palm Beach County, Fla., steps to tighten documentation requirements for enrollment were met with backlash and accusations of discriminating against undocumented immigrants, reported the Palm Beach Post. In response, the district created an appeals process and expanded the range of documents allowed for proof of residence.
“Within Texas, practices vary widely among districts,” said Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards. High-growth and high-performance districts, such as those around Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, are concerned by an influx of improperly enrolled students. On the other hand, shrinking rural districts have less incentive to invest time and money in investigating such students, or they might even have an open door policy.
State laws provide the legal framework for violation of attendance boundaries to be considered a crime, but cases typically are handled informally in conferences between school administrators and students, Baskin said.
Residency verification cases can be complicated, as they range from the blatantly wrong—as in the case of parents who drop off their child at a bus stop for a different school district—to the ignorant, like parents who do not understand that merely owning property in a district is not the same as establishing residency.
Some cases are even more ambiguous, as in some border areas where a student might actually reside in Mexico but spend most of the week with a relative in Texas. “These are really tough issues, because if they’re spending the majority of their time in a relative’s home, that may really be their residence,” Baskin said.
“All we’re doing is providing data. It’s up to the school to decide what to do with that data—we’re not saying if this student is illegal,” said Mesis.
Before, schools were “only able to go by tips to know who needs more investigation, so their actions were more reactive than proactive,” Mesis said. “The technology now provides schools with a proactive way to determine residency.”