Residency fraud is up as families who live outside San Francisco maneuver for spots at some of The City’s most prestigious public schools.
According to data provided by the district, the number of cases in which fraud was sustained jumped from 34 in the 2015-16 school year to 48 in 2016-17 and 53 in 2017-18.
Despite the consistent increase, district leaders grappling with the issue voted last week to extend the reprieve period alloted to families to produce evidence that their child is entitled to their seat before being forced to leave the San Francisco Unified School District, in an effort to minimize the impacts that the fraud investigation has on students.
With the exception of homeless students, families who have been caught submitting fraudulent residency documents in an effort to gain access to a certain school will now have 14 days to appeal the investigation and another 15 days before enrollment is terminated — up from 10 days and 11 days, respectively.
The update to a policy meant to curb residency fraud was approved by the Board of Education last Tuesday and will take effect in the upcoming school year. It aims to lessen the trauma experienced by students who are being asked to leave their schools — sometimes mid-semester — due to false claims on their enrollment applications made either intentionally or unintentionally by their parents.
“Personally I would like to hold the student harmless, because it’s the activity of the parent that is creating this situation,” said Commissioner Emily Murase, who argued that the policy should be further amended to allow students who have been discovered to live outside of the district to finish out the semester at their San Francisco schools. “It’s so disruptive for a student to leave mid-semester.”
Commissioner Matt Haney agreed that students should not be punished for the misdeeds of their parents.
“They are not the ones making the decision to fill out the paperwork in the way it was filled out,” said Haney. “There also in some cases could have been a change in the family situation that caused it. Even if we say it’s fraud, there are many reasons why a family may choose to stay or be in a school, some which are more sympathetic.”
But according to district staff, data shows that parents committing residency fraud are “overwhelmingly” homeowners in other counties. Many are vying for a limited number of seats at high-demand schools such as the prestigious Lowell High School.
With enrollment for the 2018-19 school year in full swing, the district’s Educational Placement Center has sustained 17 cases flagged for potential fraud, with ten of those applications submitted for the prestigious Lowell High School, where students are generally accepted based on a highly competitive application process.
Those seats could be filled by some of of SFUSD’s most vulnerable students, like those in need of IEP services and programs that are offered at Lowell.
Other popular schools with high levels of enrollment fraud in the last three years include Presidio Middle School, Aptos Middle School and George Washington High School.
San Francisco students are waitlisted for placement at these schools, and are moved once space frees up.
“We have a situation in our district where the only seats that are available for mid-semester safety transfers and students with IEPS tends to be at under enrolled schools because the overenrolled schools are full,” said Commissioner Rachel Norton, adding that enrollment fraud impedes on the district’s ability to reach it’s student diversity goals.
Norton expressed a lack of sympathy for “families that are lying.”
“I think the testimony about the lengths that parents have to go to make it look like they established residency here when they haven’t, shows that they are very knowing about it and they have resources and while I’m sorry that it’s disruptive to the student I also feel like we have a real responsibly to San Francisco families first,” she said. “We need to follow our own policies.”
Along with a parent or guardian’s name and address, the district currently requires that parents submit one of ten documents ranging from voter registration to a copy of a utility bill, to prove that the student resides in San Francisco.
After the district established a process to vet for residency and crack down on cheating in 2010, the number of students who have had their enrollment revoked due to fraudulent applications declined. However in the last three years it has begun to rise again.
According to SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick, enrollment fraud is investigated by the district. State educational code permits the hiring of private investigators as well as home visits, to and from home or school surveillance, review of student and public records and social media, interviews of people affiliated with the student and the “collection of images with technology used in open and public view.”