About the time her now fourth-grade students were in second grade, Lyles-Crouch Elementary School parent Helen Epley had something of an epiphany during a conversation with a friend about the citys schools.
With Alexandria City Public Schools only requiring families to prove residency once, upon enrollment, Epley realized that a family able to avoid suspicion could potentially send a child to school in Alexandria for years after moving elsewhere or not living here at all.
And all of a sudden, Epley said, it occurred to me that this is actually a bigger thing than going to school here for an extra year after youve moved, or your mom loses her job and your grandmother watches over you for a few months while she tries to find a new job.
Currently, ACPS requires an enrolling family to provide either a personal property tax receipt, deed or copy of a lease agreement, in addition to at least one relevant utility bill to verify legal residency in the city, according to Lawrence Jointer, director of pupil services.
Epleys experience with the school registration process to date seems to be in line with current procedures that essentially resemble an honor system.
We trust that when people come in and register that they live where they say they live, Jointer said. As I recall, with the house that we rented when we first moved here we showed our lease and that was it, Epley said. And we were never asked for it again, and this is our fifth year at the school.
No re-registration system is in place, but in the upcoming school year the school system might consider initiating that process at one additional grade level, Superintendent Morton Sherman said, adding that an annual re-registration drive would be taxing of staff time and clerical costs.
In the neighboring Fairfax County schools, too, there is no annual or required re-verification process, according to a registration official.
In Shermans former, smaller school district in New Jersey, he said the registration was centralized and involved annual reviews of lease terms. In these situations, when records showed a lease was about to expire, the schools would contact families to verify and update their residency status.
I think we need to be doing something like that here in a more systemized fashion, Sherman said.
The long-standing ACPS system of monitoring possible residency improprieties had school principals and social workers taking the point position, with Jointer and other central staff taking part in some deeper investigations, Jointer said.
Under this arrangement, principals could end up in the unenviable position of looking into a familys suspected impropriety and finding nothing, making the learning environment awkward for all parties involved.
Recently, Sherman authorized Jointers department to hire private investigators to handle that work, in hopes of providing some thorough, professional objectivity to the cases that come to us, Sherman said.
Both Sherman and Jointer said that the amount of cases that reach the central office and prove to be instances of fraud are very few.
Theres this whole folk wisdom that says the problem must be massive but on the other hand, the actual numbers are basically a handful, Sherman said.
In some cases, an ACPS student could have a legitimate reason to come from outside the school district or be dropped off by a car with non-Virginia plates, potentially leading to the illusion of a mass influx of fraudulent students.
Among these reasons could be that a students parents may be divorced with one living outside Alexandria, Jointer said, or the family could still be new to the system and even have a vehicle registered elsewhere.
Additionally, the increasing prevalence of homeless students due to the recession might be misleading as school policy allows for students forced from their homes to complete the school year while living outside Alexandria.
Legitimate excuses aside, instances where the school system and, by proxy, taxpayers are cheated are not taken lightly, resulting in back-tuition charges and even legal action.
I would not downplay at all the instances where there is some impropriety, because we certainly have them, Jointer said. This isnt something unique to Alexandria.
And as student enrollment continues to rise and Alexandrias tuition continues to hover at around $19,000 the highest in northern Virginia each faux-resident has that much more of an impact.
Epley said that the issue didnt hit home for her until she heard that the Lyles-Crouch computer lab, following the fate of the science lab and TV studio, was slated for conversion into a standard classroom because of rising enrollment. Since 2006-2007, Lyles-Crouch one of the citys smallest primary schools has seen its student population rise from 293 to 345, according to recent enrollment figures.