Analysis: Holding Miss. parents accountable

The city of Ridgeland, Miss., has adopted an ordinance to help the Madison County school system verify that parents sending their children to the local schools live in the district.

“In the recent past all the burden of proof was on us. Now the burden of proof lies with the parents,” Madison County schools superintendent Mike Kent says of the Ridgeland ordinance.

The Ridgeland ordinance makes it a misdemeanor to falsify residency to enroll children in school. The ordinance also requires rental property owners report to school officials whenever school-age children move in or out of their units.

Clinton and DeSoto County have similar ordinances. And other areas of the state may be policing “district line jumpers” without resorting to penalties, even minor ones.

State law requires children to attend schools in the districts where they live. There are exceptions, such as when two school districts agree to a transfer or when a child attends the school where their parent teaches.

Since 1990, the state Department of Education has required school districts to verify the residency of students. Officials can do that by making calls or home visits. Parents and guardians are also required to submit documentation of residency.

The policy includes a laundry lists of documents that can be required by a local school district.

That’s not all some school districts have done. The Clinton and DeSoto County districts allow residents to report out-of-district students on their Web sites.

House Education Committee chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, says there may be some isolated cases of “line jumping” but those are usually handled locally.

“I am not familiar with there being a broad issue,” Brown said.

Senate Education Committee chairman Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, said such incidents usually happen when two school districts are close together and the perception is that one is doing better than the other in academics or athletics.

“As far as being a big problem, I’m not aware of it,” said Carmichael, a former school administrator.

The issue is directly related to money. Districts miss local tax funding when they take on students who don’t live inside their boundaries. And the districts where those students are supposed to go to school lose state funding because it’s based on enrollment.

People do it for a variety of reasons, school officials say. They perceive another school or district to be of better quality than where they live. They do it out of family convenience: a school may be closer to work or closer to child care.

Some students leave a district to take advantage of band, certain classes or other extracurricular activities not available to them at home. Athletic programs also create an infiltration of out-of-district students.

In Hinds County and Jackson, there are no penalties for district line jumping except for removal of the student from school.

Some school districts, such as Madison County and DeSoto County, require copies of utility bills and rental documents and mortgages to ensure children are going to the right school.

Officials don’t see the ordinances as punitive as much as helping the kids who are in school legitimately.

DeSoto County officials contend that out-of-district students had been costing the district upward of $3 million in 2003-04.

In Ridgeland, violators will now be punished through municipal court and face as much as a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail. Those breaking the Clinton ordinance could face a $1,000 fine or up to 90 days in jail.

Jack Elliott Jr./The Associated Press