This is the time of year parents and families dig out the utility bills and ask for copies of leases and deeds to prove they live where they say they live in order to enroll their children in a school district.
Typically, proof of residency is required in order to establish residency within the actual school district and within the actual school zone. This is particularly true in large school districts with multiple schools per age grouping.
Schools in Alabama are funded with a blend of federal, state and local funding. Those school districts that provide high levels of local funding would naturally not want to spend local funding on students who are not actual residents of the geographic area of the school district (and thereby contributing to the local funds, whether through property tax or sales tax).
Why are district officials protective of local funding? Local funding is the money that is used to fund additional opportunities for students, including technological devices, smaller class sizes, and a range of elective classes, to name a few.
It’s not only local funding that is at stake. State funding allotted to school districts is based in large part on the average number of students who are enrolled in the district during the 2o-day period after Labor Day from the previous school year (known as Average Daily Membership, or ADM). Large fluctuations in student populations can be difficult for school districts to adjust to, particularly when fluctuations result in overcrowded schools.
Authority to Establish Residency Requirements
School districts are given federal authority to create attendance zones in an effort to ensure their government-provided, government-paid-for services are provided only to bona fide residents. In Martinez v. Bynum , 461 U.S. 321 (1983), the Supreme Court upheld a Texas statute which established a bona fide residency requirement for minors who wished to attend public schools.
The Supreme Court held that “[a] bona fide residency requirement, appropriately defined and uniformly applied, furthers the substantial state interest in assuring that services provided for its residents are enjoyed only by residents. Such a requirement with respect to attendance in public free schools does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. … A bona fide residence requirement simply requires that the person does establish residence before demanding the services that are restricted to residents.” Martinez, 461 U.S. at 328-29; see id., at n 7 (since public education is not a constitutionally protected right, issue may be decided under the ‘rational basis’ test.) [Taken from the judge’s ruling in a 2009 lawsuit, Willard et al v. Baldwin County Board of Education, page 7 questioning Baldwin County’s residency requirements.]
What Martinez really did was say that if a student moves in and establishes a residence for the sole reason of attending the free public schools, the district can deny admission if the student is not a bona fide resident.
While there is no Alabama law to define and dictate how residency is established in school districts, the Alabama Administrative Code (AAC) Chapter 290-3-1 states that “admission to public school shall be on an individual basis, on the application of the parents, legal custodian or guardian of the student, to the local board of education, at the beginning of each school year, under such rules and regulations as the local board may prescribe.”
The AAC also mandates that “the local board of education is responsible for adopting policies of admission and attendance within the framework of state law and State Board of Education policies. These policies should be clearly stated, followed implicitly and given publicity in the area to be served in the spring and fall before schools officially open.”
That means that folks need to know what the admission policies are.
Every child of mandatory school age is entitled to a free appropriate public education within the State of Alabama. School systems must prescribe reasonable policies to ensure that only bona fide residents are admitted to their respective schools. The policies must be consistent with existing terminal desegregation orders issued by the federal courts and with existing statutory and regulatory guidelines. Each case must be decided on its own merits.
BUT….school boards are free to accept non-resident students if they so choose. A board of education’s policy manual (many can be found at this link) will contain residency requirements for students and whether the district accepts non-residents.
Where Things Get Confusing – Custody, Guardianship, and Doubling-Up
Circumstances surrounding custody arrangements among divorced or non-married parents can cause confusion. Generally speaking, a student is deemed to be “domiciled” (a legal term meaning where the child actually lives) in the residence of the person who has legal custody of the child. In the case of joint custody, at least one district stated in its policy that it depends on where the child lives three days in one week. With family law ever-evolving, children who truly live 50% of the time with one parent and 50% of the time with another parent might find themselves in a difficult situation determining where the child should attend school.
Every residency policy reviewed made it clear that guardianship of a child must be officially and legally transferred to the person living at the address the child uses to enroll in the school district. Children who are unaccompanied (meaning no adult has guardianship) or are in the care of the state (including foster children) require special consideration by school officials.
Confusion can also occur when families “double-up” or live in what school officials refer to as a “second party” residence. With economic conditions causing hardship for individual families, some have chosen to move multiple families into the same housing to save on costs. Other families have been forced to double-up because of the cost of housing.
Determining whether families are doubled-up or homeless is a very important factor for school-aged children.
If a family loses their housing and moves in temporarily with a family member or other relative or friend to stabilize the immediate situation, the children are considered homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act and federal protections kick in. This means that your child CANNOT be forced to transfer out of their current school if the move places them in a new school zone or district.
If two families choose to move in together to split housing costs, that could be seen as a doubling-up situation by choice. Residency verification procedures can get invasive at this point, even to the point of an attendance officer knocking on your door to see if you are actually living in the doubled-up housing.
Exception for Homeless Students – Important!
Students who are deemed to be homeless under provisions of the McKinney-Vento Act are exempt from establishing residency.
Determining whether students are living in a school district out of necessity or choice is a difficult process and should be treated with great care. Please visit this resources page from the National Center for Homelessness and Poverty for more information.
When School Districts Allow Non-Residents to Enroll
There are a number of school districts that have written policies about enrolling students from outside of their school district boundaries. Florence City Schools clearly stated how non-resident students will be considered for enrollment (beginning on page 56). District policies and procedures should be clear to those seeking enrollment who do not live in the district. Check the table below for more examples.
Many school districts allow children of employees to enroll even when the employees do not live within the school district’s geographic boundaries.
Is Verifying Residency Really That Important for School Districts?
Apparently it is. This article, from 2012, features Tuscaloosa County school officials delineating the reasons parents may attempt to enroll their children in a school in a zone different from the one where they live:
- the school has better test scores,
- the school looks nicer than the old school,
- the school has a better reputation,
- the location of the parent’s job,
- their child may have been involved in a bad or embarrassing incident at a previous school,
- they want to get their sons onto a new football team, or
- the parents attended a school and want their children to go there.
There are no numbers to back up the notion that a lot of students are enrolling in school districts falsely. There are no numbers even of the investigations or the results of those investigations. It would be helpful to know how many students are investigated for claiming a false residence and then are subsequently removed from the school or school district.
Attaching a cost to these investigations and the personnel to support residency verification would also be extremely helpful.
What Does a District Do If They Suspect a Child Doesn’t Live in the District?
Of the sample of school district policies regarding residency reviewed, only a few of the policies actually delineated the process for investigation when residency is questioned.
Attendance officers are likely the ones who will investigate questions regarding residency. Because Martinez (the federal case upon which Alabama schools appear to rely) stated that a school district’s residency policy must be applied uniformly, it seems that it would be wise for districts to clearly delineate the process as Calhoun County Schools (beginning on page 8 of the PDF) have done.
When You Are Asked to Provide Proof of Residency
- Find out exactly to whom you are supposed to provide those documents. Make sure you provide the documents before the deadline.
- Keep copies of everything you provide to the school district. Take pictures of the documents with your phone if you can’t make copies.
- Write down the date you gave school officials your proof of residency.
- Write down the name of the person to whom you gave the documents.
- If you receive a request after you have already provided the documents, ask why you are receiving a second request.
- Know what your rights and responsibilities are if your proof of residency is deemed invalid and your child is denied admission.
Please note that providing false documents is considered to be giving false information to a public official in the performance of duty is a violation of the Criminal Code of Alabama §13A-10-109 (a) and is a Class C misdemeanor.
So there is a reason for the fuss after all. And it has to do with money, resources and planning. The U.S. Supreme Court solidified school districts’ authority to establish residency. However, without Alabama state law defining residency, each of Alabama’s school districts has been allowed to define residency and establish residency verification procedures.
Recognizing that public education is paid for with taxpayer funds, and that districts that have a lot of local wealth are trying to “protect their house”, it becomes more obvious why school officials aggressively pursue residency verification.
What remains to be explored is: how much does all of this residency verification cost school districts and families (who jump through hoops to gather forms and submit them to school officials), how prevalent falsely enrolling children is, and why families are willing to break the law (which is what falsifying residency requirements amounts to) to enroll their children in a school district in which they are not legally allowed to do so.
Looks like I need to get started on some new Open Records requests.
Residency Policies from a Sample of Alabama School Districts
Here’s a sampling of residency policies, verification procedures, and non-resident enrollment procedures in 21 (of 136) school districts across the state.
|School District||Residency Requirement||Additional Notes|
|Auburn City Schools||2013-2014 Statement of Responsibilities||Begins on page 11|
|Autauga County Schools||Policy Manual||Begins on page 235.|
|Baldwin County Schools||Student Handbook||Begins on page 18 with "School Guardianship". Baldwin County has an application for a Zone Variance Request"to be considered on an individual basis. Here's the form.|
|Birmingham City Schools||Policy Manual||Begins on page 62.|
|Calhoun County Schools||Student Handbook||Begins on page 7 of PDF (page 5 of actual Handbook). The process regarding investigation of possible non-compliance is thorough and includes an appeals process.|
|Cullman City Schools||Residency Verification||Begins on page 16|
|Decatur City Schools||Eligibility for Admission to Decatur City Schools|
|Florence City Schools||Policy Manual||Begins on page 56 of the PDF. Florence City delineates the process for non-resident students to be enrolled.|
|Hoover City Schools||Admission Policy||Begins on page 56|
|Jefferson County Schools||Policy Manual||Begins on page 63.|
|Lauderdale County Schools||Student Handbook|
|Midfield City Schools||Registration Notification|
|Mobile County Schools||Provision for Determining Residence of Students|
|Mountain Brook City Schools||Residency Policies|
|Piedmont City Schools||Open Enrollment Policy|
|Saraland City Schools||Admission of Non-Resident Students|
|Satsuma City Schools||Non-Resident Policy||Non-Resident Application Process|
|Shelby County Schools||Guidelines for Proof of Residence|
|Talladega County Schools||Residence and Zone Requirements|
|Trussville City Schools||Certificate of Residency||The document linked states that the multiple districts within Jefferson County have agreed to collaborate in cases where a student is found to be out-of-zone.|
|Tuscaloosa County Schools||Enrollment Requirements||Scroll down for Establishing Residency.|