City Schools of Decatur uses private investigators to sniff out fishy enrollmentsCity Schools of Decatur Administrative Offices. Photo by Dena Mellick
This story has been updated.
By Dena Mellick, Associate editor
As enrollment rises at City Schools of Decatur, aggressive enforcement has been put in place to ensure non-residents aren’t illegally attending the schools. That’s according to two School Board members speaking to the Decatur Heights Neighborhood Association Tuesday evening.
Board Chair Garrett Goebel told the group that CSD is the fastest growing school district in the state of Georgia for the fifth year running. The Decatur School Board voted to officially ask the City Commission to put a $75 million GO bond referendum on the ballot this November to pay for school construction to address rising enrollment.
“If that’s approved by the voters in November, that would give us 90 percent of the funds that we need – capital funds – to add additional capacity so that we could meet our estimated capacity needs through the year 2020,” said Goebel.
Over the past several years, CSD has also aggressively been going after non-residents trying to illegally attend city schools as another way to address capacity.
“Principals are aware of some of the suspicious behavior,” Board member Julie Rhame told the neighborhood association. “If they’re always tardy or if they don’t have kids over. You can tell. We have someone on staff that investigates. We send out private [investigators]. We send out our law firm. We have taken people to court. We don’t want to have to spend money on litigation, but some people are pretty brazen about it.”
Goebel added, “We do it aggressively in a sense, because we know that … if you get behind on that, or word gets out, it’s too late.”
Rhame explained that when she first started on the board nearly 12 years ago, there were 330 students under investigation.
“That was bigger than [the enrollment of] most of our elementary schools at the time,” Rhame said. She said Superintendent Phyllis Edwards has taken the problem seriously since coming on in 2003.
“We do audits too,” Rhame said. “We make you prove your residency every year, but we also have random audits. I’ve been randomly audited three times.”
In a follow-up interview, Rhame told Decaturish there is no current litigation related to school enrollment, but CSD has taken parents to civil court in the past. Decaturish’s Ralph Ellis reported in 2012 for Patch.com that CSD settled with a mother whose residence was actually in Lithonia, where she claimed a homestead exemption.
Rhame said that’s one of the first things they do in the investigations – look where a person’s homestead exemption is taken.
“Many school systems in the area have taken parents to court, some for criminal charges, because it’s a felony to falsify documents to a government entity, which we are. We haven’t done the criminal version, but the civil, so they can correct themselves,” Rhame told Decaturish.
Decaturish emailed the school system to ask how much CSD has spent on private investigators and investigations into out-of-district students. Spokeswoman Courtney Burnett said CSD has spent $900 on residency investigations for 2014-2015 on people “not legally domiciled within the city limits of … Decatur.” Burnett said the staff member in charge of investigations is the Enrollment Specialist who “coordinates home visits with other staff members.”
The discussion of residency came up at Tuesday’s meeting when a neighbor asked about out-of-district students who pay tuition to enroll – a practice that CSD recently ended. However, Rhame said students who were already in the system were grandfathered in so they could finish out their school career.
Rhame and Goebel said in addition to the major issues of rising enrollment and the GO bond referendum, finding a replacement for Superintendent Edwards is a big focus right now. Edwards announced in March that she is resigning.
The Board has selected a search firm to find her replacement, and it’s also asking the community for help to develop a leadership profile to include as part of the job description for the next superintendent. City Schools of Decatur staff, students, parents, and community members can share their thoughts through a Superintendent Search Survey available online until June 3rd.
There will also be four community forums to gather input on what people want in a new superintendent.
Those forums will be held in the Board of Education Room at the Central Office at the Beacon Municipal Center located at 125 Electric Avenue on the following dates:
- Monday, June 1, 2015 at 6:30 p.m.
- Tuesday, June 2, 2015 at 6:30 p.m.
- Wednesday, June 3, 2015 at 6:30 p.m.
- Wednesday, August 5, 2015 at 6:30 p.m.
Rhame said the Board hopes to have a selection of candidates in the fall.
Disclaimer: The author is a dues-paying member of the Decatur Heights Neighborhood Association.
This story has been updated with CSD’s answer to our inquiries.