With crowding a major problem in Baltimore County schools, Superintendent Joe A. Hairston has launched an intensive investigation of late, suspicious student registrations at four schools, including Woodlawn High School, where the principal estimates as many as 200 students live outside the county.
The problem of "outsiders" attending county schools is so acute that Hairston is deploying 35 staffers to check student records, visit purported residences and even comb tax rolls to confirm where a student lives. In addition, all of the county's principals have been asked to report any suspicious registrations.
"We're asking for names they feel are fraudulently in their school, and we will investigate," said Robert J. Kemmery, executive director of student support services. Hairston is pledging to crack down on students from the city and elsewhere who furtively try to enroll in the county's public schools.
Officials are focusing on the new registrations because under state law, a student must be allowed to stay in a school once enrolled there.
Besides Woodlawn, suspicious late registrations at Kenwood High in Essex, Southwest Academy in Westview and Woodlawn Middle are also being examined.
Except in certain cases, Maryland law prohibits a county school system from enrolling students who live elsewhere. School systems can be fined for enrolling outsiders because the state provides money for districts based on the number of students they have.
No one knows how many false enrollments there may be in Baltimore County. But parents, principals and school board members are loudly complaining that schools may be overcrowded because students, primarily from the city, falsely claim residence in the county.
"The No. 1 complaint is about overcrowding in the schools, and if that problem is caused by students [from] outside the jurisdiction, that's something we can do something about," said Sanford V. Teplitzky, a school board member.
Some principals have privately told him, Teplitzky said, that 5 percent to 10 percent of their students might live outside the county.
Most of the concerns are coming from the western side of the county, particularly at schools inside the Beltway and close to the city, such as those in Woodlawn.
"And there are kids on our rolls right now who have been able to access the school, and they're from the city," said C. Anthony Thompson, Woodlawn High's principal.
Thompson said the school discovers that students are outsiders when school correspondence mailed to their purported addresses is returned.
Parents and guardians, however, have complained about their children going unschooled while their legitimate registration requests are investigated. The school system blocks enrollment until residency is confirmed.
But other parents have clamored for the crackdown, saying it's unfair that parents or guardians of out-of-county students take advantage of their tax dollars.
"Hey, we pay taxes here. Do these people pay taxes here? When you deceive, that hurts everyone," said Linda Blackwell, who was PTA president last year at Lansdowne Elementary School. She says that school has a problem with out-of-county pupils.
Ella White Campbell, a Randallstown community activist, said she favored investigations if they help reduce overcrowding.
"When you allow that to happen, you allow those behaviors to come in - negative behaviors," such as disorderliness and acting out, she said.
School officials said they are trying to conduct investigations with speed and sensitivity.
The school system grants exceptions for "hardships" - when, for example, a child may be living with a relative to escape abuse or when a student's parents are in prison. This year, there are 271 such students enrolled in Baltimore County schools.
But otherwise, the system requires proofs of residence, such as a deed and utility bill, before enrollment is granted.
Normally, the county investigates about 10 percent of its 108,000 students every year, said Dale R. Rauenzahn, director of student services. That often happens when students claim their families moved from the city to live with a relative in the county.
Most claims check out, Rauenzahn said. But suspicions are running deeper this year.
At a school board meeting last Monday night, Hairston said the only shadows darkening the smooth opening of schools were "serious concerns" about false enrollments.
"We will begin to investigate," he said.