A question of honesty: Open enrollment vs. dubious Island addresses

Elizabeth Celms
Mercer Island Reporter

With a school district as reputed as Mercer Island, it’s no wonder there are students living with relatives and friends in order to attend one of the Island’s schools. Although such living situations are uncommon on Mercer Island, they do exist — even with the alternative of open enrollment.

According to MISD administrative policy, a student’s residence is defined by the place where he or she sleeps four nights of the week. Therefore, a student whose parents live in Seattle but who stays with a friend on Mercer Island during the week can legally attend the district’s schools.

“Really, it’s about the student’s best interest,” said interim Superintendent Gary Plano. “There are times when a student’s family moves and we allow the student to remain on the Island. A student’s emotional and academic well being are what we’re concerned with.”

Students who do not have a permanent Mercer Island residence are termed “homeless” for documentation purposes. Plano emphasized that the school district does not treat “homeless” students differently than those with a permanent Island address.

MISD principals, teachers and school secretaries are responsible for tracking a student’s residence, ensuring that each child has a place to live while on the Island. Administrators’ main priority, Plano said, is making sure that a student has a fluid educational experience, along with a stable -- and legal -- place to stay. If concerns are raised in this area, interim Associate Superintendent of Instructional Services Kathy Morrison is notified, according to district policy.

“If the principal of a school has a reason to doubt whether a student is living at a residence in the district with a parent or someone other than his/her parent, the principal will contact the associate superintendent of instructional services... who will require a verification of residence,” the MISD enrollment policy states.

“If it is determined that a student is not a resident of the district... the student’s enrollment will be revoked. Such verification may include: a lease agreement, home purchase documentation, mail addressed to the resident, utility statement etc.”

In addition to verifying the validity of a student’s residence, Morrison is responsible for reporting temporary situations to the state department.

So far this year, the interim associate superintendent — who has only retained her position since Oct. 11 — has not received one report concerning a “homeless” student or illegitimate Island registration.

“There has not been one issue brought to my attention this year,” she said.

A recent alternative to registering one’s child under the address of a relative or friend is open enrollment.

Indeed, the 2007 introduction of this policy, which allows off-Island parents a legal door into Mercer Island schools, gives “homeless” students the chance to move back home.

Yet open enrollment, which looks set to continue in 2008-09, is a competitive process and does not always guarantee a spot at MISD. Therefore, non-residents who register their child under a 98040 address or have him spend weekdays with an Island friend may still exist.

“Most common is that we have families with dual properties. They use a legitimate MI address — either an apartment or property under renovation — yet they live off the Island,” said West Mercer Elementary Principal Pat Blix, noting that this mostly applies to the parents of older students. “It’s a very slim number and mostly high-schoolers. Elementary kids, really, are living with their families.”

However, the principal added a key point -- that a student’s true residence is often difficult to prove. “We have to take the [residency] information that parents provide to us. We have to believe they are telling the truth.”

Prior to Morrison, Instructional Services Coordinator Jan Kentnor was in charge of verifying a student’s residence and making sure it coincided with district rules. It was a responsibility she had carried since joining the district in 1978, although at that time the rules were much different.

“When I came in 1978, we had off-Island students. We could charge tuition — at an unsubsidized cost — and anyone who wanted to come could come. Then in the ‘80s, laws changed so that we could no longer charge tuition,” Kentnor said.

Each year, the instructional services coordinator discovered “quite a few” students who were not from the Island. Usually, she would be tipped-off by Island parents, Kentnor said.

“We got a lot of calls from people. People are interested in having small classes on the Island. Students who are here legally is one thing, but those who aren’t legal don’t sit well with those parents making sacrifices for their children to go to [Island] schools,” she said.

And this is where open enrollment comes in — a saving grace for off-Island parents with an ethical conscience. In addition to being a budgetary solution to dropping student numbers, open enrollment provides a legitimate path for off-Island youth to attend MI schools.

“[Illegal residency] is really a mute point now that we have open enrollment,” Blix said.

This past year, 42 off-Island students were accepted to MISD through open enrollment. Last week, Plano announced that the district was accepting applications for open enrollment for the 2008-09 school year. Whether these applications are grabbed up by parents with a child registered under her grandmother’s Island residence is questionable. Unless reported to Morrison, each student’s actual residence is difficult to monitor.

“We can only trust the information that’s given us,” Blix said. “We have to take the word of the parent.”

For full MISD administrative policies on student enrollment go to:

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