Fraud crackdown targets out-of-county students


Howard County school officials, looking for ways to detect fraud, are cracking down on out-of-county students who attend school without paying tuition.

Since last school year, school officials have required a family to sign a "multiple family disclosure" form if it claims to share a home with a county resident. This school year, they will perform 60-day follow-up visits to verify such claims.

"We want to make sure we have bona fide, legitimate arrangements," said Peter Finck, the county schools' pupil personnel supervisor. "We are going to be monitoring multiple-family arrangements closely."

The new procedures will have no effect on the hundreds of out-of-county students legally enrolled in Howard schools, some of whom cause disruption, principals say.

"You not only have students coming here illegally, but you have quite possibly some failure or behavioral problem that accompany the students," said Connie Lewis, assistant principal at Mount Hebron High School.

Concerns about out-of-county students come at a time when the school system is growing faster than it can build new schools, and as parents complain about students being transferred because of crowding.

About 250 out-of-county students registered and enrolled in Howard County schools in the 1993-1994 school year, about 200 of them in caretaker arrangements in which parents give families and friends the right to make educational and medical decisions for their children.

Of the 200 in caretaker arrangements, 32 paid tuition, ranging from $4,570 a year for in-state children to $6,180 a year for out-of-state children. Mr. Finck said fraud was involved in fewer than 10 of the other caretaker arrangements.

The remaining out-of-county children -- the majority from such deteriorated home environments that it was in their best interest live with a third party, Mr. Finck said -- cost Howard County schools at least $777,000 a year to teach.

School officials say the cost is higher than that because they don't know exactly how many other out-of-county students are registered illegally.

Mr. Finck said he got complaints in the most recent school year from almost all middle and high school principals, who suspected that some out-of-county students were attending their schools without paying tuition. Many of the out-of-county students come from Baltimore and neighboring areas including Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

Parents "want children to live with other family members because of the perception that better schools exist in Howard County," Mr. Finck said.

Principals usually discover the fraud by chance: mail returns fTC labeled "no forwarding address," a call by school officials to a student's listed phone number that reveals the parents do not live at that address, the discovery that the phone number is outside the county.

Other times, bus drivers alert school authorities that they saw a parent drive from the county line to drop children at a bus stop, Mr. Finck said. Parents also may secure a lease for a county apartment, register their children at school and renege on the lease, enabling them to maintain an out-of-county address and send their children to Howard County schools.

"We're growing so quickly," said Sterlind Burke, principal at Ellicott Mills Middle School. "I would like to make sure we have the resources for students who are here legally."

Mr. Burke said his concern is "purely economical. We are very fortunate to have a system with a good reputation, but we have to be very careful that we financially take care of the system."

Principals say some illegally enrolled out-of-county students are continually truant because they can't find a ride to school, skewing absenteeism figures that are scrutinized by the state.

"It's becoming an increasingly complex problem," said Gene Streagle, principal of Howard High School. "Moms and dads do anything to make a child successful. Sometimes a change of venue helps. Sometimes it doesn't."

Legally, out-of-county parents can enroll their children in several ways.

They can pay tuition or sign a form stating that they will move into the county within 60 days, with proof of a lease or a house construction contract.

They can assign legal guardianship of their children to a bona fide county resident who will be able to make decisions on the children's behalf. Children under legal guardianship don't have to pay tuition.

Or parents can enter a "caretaker" agreement with a county resident, in which parents give full authority to a third party to make educational, medical and conduct decisions for the children. Such agreements typically involve families or friends who take on children whose parents are imprisoned, mentally and physically disabled, or financially strapped, among other conditions.

The schools will waive tuition for students in caretaker arrangements if it finds hardship is involved. Examples might include a student who has been abandoned, abused or assigned to a third party by the Department of Social Services.

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