Address fraud in SFUSD is exposed

Tonight’s 11 p.m. newscast on ABC-7 led with the news that in recent weeks, SFUSD has caught over 80 students who live outside the City sneaking into high-demand SFUSD schools like Lowell High School and Sherman Elementary. Readers of this blog might recall that as part of the new student assignment policy, the Board asked the Superintendent to beef up address verification, since the new system will place more weight on where students live than we have in the past.

As part of that effort, the school district asked community members to report people who are using a fraudulent address to attend SFUSD.  With very little outreach effort, tips came pouring in. After investigation, many of those tips have turned out to be valid.

According to ABC 7 News, many of the students have been attending their schools for several years, and the prospect of being kicked out is upsetting to everyone. Sherman Elementary principal Sara Shenkan-Rich (one of SFUSD’s two principals of the year for 2010) expressed regret that some of her students who have attended since Kindergarten will have to leave the school. But parents who waited for months for admission to Sherman pointed out that, as San Francisco residents, their right to attend Sherman should come first — ahead of people who live in other cities.

I have to say that there appears to have been a somewhat lackadaisical view of address verification in recent years, since where you live (as long as you live in San Francisco) has had less weight in our assignment system over the past decade. Generally, revenue limit districts like ours have less of a financial incentive to verify whether students actually live in the district; that incentive is even weaker when a district’s overall enrollment is declining (as ours was over the past decade). I don’t mean to suggest  that people were intentionally looking the other way — I know there were efforts made to verify addresses. I just mean that perhaps we underestimated the resourcefulness of some families in cities like Oakland, Richmond, and Daly City who were determined to attend certain schools in SFUSD.

Anyway, there is a new sheriff in town, and the Board has made clear that we will investigate (and in extreme cases, prosecute) any cases of address fraud. Families who lie to get their children accepted into SFUSD schools will be caught, so my advice to anyone considering using a fraudulent address would be: Don’t chance it.

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12 responses to “Address fraud in SFUSD is exposed

  1. Byron Thurber

    Rachel,

    Thanks to the BOE for making this a higher priority. As Sup’t Garcia stated at the 3/8/2010 meeting, part of the penalty for getting caught has to be getting kicked out of the school (if they lied about neighborhood or diversity factors), or the District if they are from out of town.

    As many commenters on sfgate.com “Mommy Files” posted 6/1 with comments running to today (6/2), there should also be a substantial financial penalty; but this is secondary to losing a spot at the school because that’s the valuable asset the District is charged with giving out.

    What if the SFUSD sent a letter, now, to all families who got into high-demand schools notifiying them that both address and diversity factors (lying about non attending preschool is the easiest, followed by English not as a first language) would be verified before the start of school in the fall, and if fraud is discovered they would lose their spot? This would uncover a certain amount of fraud, and send others running for cover.

  2. Families of students from outside of SF have always had the resources to use fake addresses to get into the better schools in SF. There are many students even on the same block but unable to get into the school within their sites. Out of towners do not have to pay for the higher cost of living in SF or now the recent increased property tax to support our schools. SFUSD staff have always known about this but they don’t bother to do anything b/c they get reimbursed by head count. It didn’t matter where the kids came from. There are plenty of city kids to occupy the slots. Many of these families end up placing their kids in small private catholic schools around the neighborhood. SFUSD used to check the SF property tax records to see if the families were lying about their address to try to get into a neighborhood school but they didn’t bother to check the San Mateo county (Daly City, Pacifica, SSF etc) families. It was always a well known fact that about 20% or more of the students at a popular school would be from outside the city. Every morning, you can see the caravan coming into the city from Skyline… 19th Avenue or Ocean beach… to Lowell, Lincoln, and Washington… Yes, these families are harming kids within our city trying to have a fair shot at some of these better schools. Most of these are not well off families… Otherwise, they would be applying to our prized expensive private high schools. Try to use a fake address for Mills or a school in Cupertino school district. They have detectives check. Look, let the SF residents apply and then families outside apply legally for an out of county transfer… I know it wouldn’t be popular b/c these families only want the best schools.

  3. The district has verified addresses in the past, at least at critical application periods. We moved within SF when my daughter was in 4th grade. We forgot to change our address with the school district — all we did was note our new address on her emergency card. When her test scores were returned to the district the following summer, we got put on a list, and we could not turn in our middle school enrollment application until we had gone to EPC and verified our new address with driver’s license, utility bills, etc.

    I’m glad to hear the district is stepping up efforts. Is there an allowance for students whose families move out of SF to stay in their current school? I know quite a few families who legitimately started at a school, and moved out of the city at some point during their school years. That seems a different situation than someone who falsified an address to get their child into the school in the first place.

  4. Terry Abad

    Glad to hear that this matter is receiving some long overdue publicity — I HATE the idea that non-residents of SF are taking places at Lowell or any other school that should be going only to folks who live in SF and play by the rules. The SFUSD should issue periodic press releases to update the public on the number of cheaters who are caught.

  5. Marnie Dunsmore

    Thanks for bringing this matter to our attention.

    And thanks for your continued efforts to improve our schools.

  6. Thanks for clarifying, Marnie – I do think this issue is serious, and I’m glad that this investigation is revealing that there is a fraud problem NOW — after almost a decade of placing very little emphasis on where (in SF) people live for the current enrollment process. In other words, currently there is an advantage for residents of certain communities (Oakland, Richmond, Daly City) to fake an SF address, but not much incentive for SF residents to fake addresses. Next year, when the new assignment process is implemented, there will be additional incentives for SF residents to commit fraud, since one SF address might give you preference for a high-demand school and another won’t.
    What this investigation is showing us is that we need new procedures and better enforcement. BEFORE the new system is put in place. I would much, much rather know that there is a potential problem and deal with it, instead of figuring out after the fact that fraud is commonplace (which I don’t believe it is at the moment, but I fully agree that it could be if we don’t nip this problem in the bud).

  7. Marnie Dunsmore

    Rachel,

    Regarding your question:

    “Where did someone say we don’t have the funds to verify addresses?”

    In the ABC news followup article to the ABC news article you posted:

    http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/education&id=7468257

    Quoting from this article:

    “The reality is the district doesn’t have the resources to investigate all 55,000 students, so this year’s 80 cases could represent only a fraction of how many there really are. ”

    Rachel, you are misconstruing my comments about the lawsuit. I do think that the lawsuit is necessary and that the schools need more funds.

    However, when San Francisco taxpayers do not have access to their schools because out-of-city residents are taking up sought after slots, that undermines the willingness of the taxpayer to push for and vote for school funding increases. Residents are forced to send their kids to private school and hence are unlikely to vote for increased funding to schools.

    “I understand that you’re angry when you hear that non-residents took up space in high-demand schools that they were not entitled to.”

    Please forgive me if I came across as being angry. My reason for posting is not anger, but concern.

    Tax payer confidence in the integrity of the school enrollment process is at stake. I hope, as our elected representative, that you will not dismiss the seriousness of this issue.

  8. Marnie – Where did someone say we don’t have the funds to verify addresses? With this action that district staff is proving that we are willing and able to go after people — and it’s also true that no amount of money would catch every last person determined to fool us. Anyway, the so-called “snitch” line is only one of several sources of information about people who may not be attending SFUSD legally – at least some of the 80 exposed in recent weeks were discovered by other means.
    And how does the lawsuit have anything to do with this situation? (And again, you’ve confused the City and SFUSD – the City administration is not suing the state; the district is, along with a number of partners). The lawsuit is being waged by the Education Legal Alliance and several law firms that are taking the case pro bono. There is not much day-to-day staff time being invested by the school district in this lawsuit and no legal costs.
    I understand that you’re angry when you hear that non-residents took up space in high-demand schools that they were not entitled to. Why not place the blame at the feet of the people who committed the fraud, instead of searching for ways to blame district staff for their transgressions?

  9. Marnie Dunsmore

    Rachel,

    It is true that in the past, the school board may not have realized the extent of address fraud.

    However, now that it is clear that this is occurring more frequently than expected, the district should do an audit, beyond what is exposed on a “snitch line.”

    Many schools and individuals may feel compelled to keep silent about address fraud and hence, a snitch line will likely result in an a very limited and unfair exposure of the true extent of the problem.

    Now that it is clear that the problem is larger than expected, are we really going to continue to really on “snitching” to correct the problem?

    The city administration has the time to sue the state for more funding.

    The fact that out-of-city residents are taking up sought after schools slots of San Francisco residents undermines the confidence of the tax payer (renter and owner).

    I would think that the school board would want to devote the time and effort toward keeping the confidence of the San Francisco tax payer and not continue to make the oft used argument that the school board does not have the funds to verify addresses.

  10. Stacey Bartlett

    Good point differentiating between City and SFUSD. Makes you wonder if the same money were invested into the child’s education today, might it not pay dividends greater than the interest earned in that savings account?

  11. Marnie – I think there are ongoing efforts to find more people who are fraudulently using addresses, but it’s a little bit of a leap to go from fraud to negligence, and a BIG leap to say that the schools condoned negligence (students are assigned centrally, so if you want to blame anyone, blame the placement office). And as I said in my post, I know there has been an effort to verify addresses — but people are crafty and a larger than expected number apparently got through. So we’ll beef up our verification AND our enforcement, and this action is the beginning of that efffort.

    Also, you are confusing the City and the School District. It is the City that is setting up college accounts and the School District that is coming up with the funds to verify addresses and track down fraud. Two completely separate entities.

  12. Marnie Dunsmore

    Is the SFUSD sure that those 80 school slots are the only examples of address fraud in the system?

    And if not, doesn’t that indicate that the SFUSD is negligent in checking addresses?

    Apparently, the city has sufficient funds to start a college savings account for each child enrolled in public school, but still argues that it doesn’t have sufficient funds to verify addresses. Could you please explain that?

    Also, why is the fine, which is less than $2,000, far less than the cost of educating a child for one year. Doesn’t that represent fraud against the city and state?

    If 80 school slots have been shown to have been occupied by out of city families, that means that 80 in-city families did not have access to these sought after spots.

    What is being done to compensate families that waitlisted the schools that condoned address fraud, but did not get in.

    Since the SFUSD did not exercise due process to vet addresses, shouldn’t these pushed out tax paying San Francisco families be compensated?