Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Students in Orland School District 135 have a lot going for them.
They perform well above the state average on standardized tests, the district spends more than $12,000 per pupil each year to educate them, and only 13 percent of them come from low-income households, records show.
Plus, there are after-school programs that offer supervision in a safe environment, a benefit to working parents.
“There’s a temptation to get some of that for free,” District 135 Supt. Paul Howell said of the after-school programs.
All of that is enough, district officials believe, for a parent to lie about where they live so they can enroll a child in the district even if they reside in another town.
District officials believe Paul Gutierrez, of Blue Island, did just that, and the next round in their legal fight with him is scheduled for Tuesday in Cook County Circuit Court in Bridgeview.
But the issue of residency requirements goes beyond the scope of this one case and raises questions about the disparity of educational opportunities based on where a student lives — questions for which officials don’t seem to have answers.
The Gutierrez case
District 135 officials allege that Gutierrez lied about where he lived and that his ex-girlfriend fudged a condominium lease so Gutierrez’s daughter could attend eighth grade at Orland Junior High School during the 2009-10 school year.
That one could view the district’s schools as more attractive than schools in Blue Island-based Cook County School District 130 is understandable. About 92 percent of students in District 135 met or exceeded Illinois Standard Achievement Test standards in the past five years, compared with 72 percent in District 130, records show.
District 130 is able to spend only $9,349 per student each year, and 80 percent of students come from low-income households. That’s all according to the annual report cards on public schools put together by the Illinois State Board of Education and Northern Illinois University.
But Gutierrez’s lawyer, Jeff Aprati, said Gutierrez and his daughter did live in Orland Park, at Gutierrez’s girlfriend’s condo, when he registered his daughter in August 2009. Aprati said they moved back to Blue Island in April after Gutierrez and his girlfriend broke up. Gutierrez’s daughter continued to attend Orland Junior High until the end of the school year, after which she graduated.
District officials question whether the daughter lived in the district at all during the school year, and Orland Park police charged Gutierrez in June with providing false information about his residence, a misdemeanor.
Police said they interviewed Gutierrez’s ex-girlfriend, who told them Gutierrez did not reside in the district but that she did and that she willingly signed a lease agreement to help Gutierrez’s daughter attend school in the district.
The case has dragged on in part because the ex-girlfriend failed to show up for a previous hearing at the Bridgeview courthouse.
District 135 officials also are going after Gutierrez for an out-of-district tuition payment of about $11,000.
State law says residency is determined by the location of a child’s permanent sleeping place.
“The law is in state code and in our (district’s) policy. We can’t make an exception even if we wanted to,” said Colleen Schultz, the district’s assistant superintendent for student services.
What led District 135 officials to suspect Gutierrez’s daughter didn’t live in the district is in dispute.
Former District 135 Supt. Dennis Soustek has said district officials approached Gutierrez in January with their suspicions. Gutierrez’s attorney, Aprati, said the district learned of the discrepancy in May after Gutierrez was arrested on a battery charge that later was dismissed. Reports on that incident were not immediately available.
Schultz said a handful of cases come up each year but only about a third of them are pursued. The others either can’t be proven, or the students withdraw from the district after the family is contacted.
Some of the red flags Schultz said schools look for to spot residency fraud are mailings returned as undeliverable or finding out a phone number no longer is valid. Sometimes a third party will contact a district to make it aware a student is being dropped off by a parent at a bus stop.
In the early grades, it can be students themselves letting the cat out of the bag.
“It’s hard for little ones to keep a secret. They’ll tell classmates where they really live,” Schultz said.
Residency fraud is enough of an issue in Homewood-Flossmoor Community High School District 233 that it has two full-time investigators on staff.
“If (the investigators) find two students who are nonresidents in a given school year, they’ve justified their salaries,” District 233 Supt. Von Mansfield said.
He said the district will get to the point of pursuing tuition reimbursement in about 25 percent of the two dozen or so cases investigated each school year. The district will use a collection agency if needed to recoup the tuition fee of about $14,000.
Carla Erdey, spokeswoman for Consolidated High School District 230, which includes Andrew, Sandburg and Stagg high schools, said the district sometimes seeks charges for each month a student attends the district without legal residency.
“We look at the particular situation,” she said. “We look at all the facts and make sure we can prove our case. That final decision is made by the school board.”
The board also decides whether trying to collect tuition would be worth it financially.
“They check to see if the legal fees would be more than the family would have to pay back,” she said.
District 230 uses the same investigators (National Investigations Inc.) as District 135. The company’s fees are $65 per hour, charged in 15-minute increments, Erdey said,
“We hire them on a case-by-case basis, about a half-dozen a year,” she said. “We don’t bring in the outside source until we’re sure there’s a case.”
School officials justify the efforts and costs as a service to district taxpayers.
“It takes a lot of time and energy, but it can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars to save the district,” Mansfield said.
Erdey said, “We don’t want to be spending money on those who live outside the district. It’s taxpayers’ money that supports the district, and we want to be educating only those who live in it.”
School funding at fault?
In cases where residency requirements are ignored because one school offers superior resources, the blame often can be pinned on how the state funds education.
Property taxes account for the biggest chunk of revenue in most districts, so there’s great disparity between districts in communities with high property values and low property values.
Some politicians, educators and parents have been advocating for change for years, but there’s been no overhaul.
“Changing how education is funded in Illinois would change this (residency problem) to some degree,” Howell said. “I think reliance on property tax creates different environments. Even a novice would see a great disparity, but I don’t know how they’ll equalize this system.”
Mansfield said how extracurriculars are funded could lure out-of-districts students to try to enroll as well.
“The desire for some of the programming we have or wanting to be part of a certain athletic program (is a reason to enroll),” he said. “Funding has a domino effect on some of these other factors.”
Aprati said he’s not so sure switching more of the tax burden to a source such as income tax is the answer.
“I don’t think they could raise the same amount of revenue through income tax,” he said.