Jason Fontenot, a police officer and former teacher, knows a thing or two about detective work and education. Since May, he’s been using both skill sets for the West Baton Rouge Parish school system, tracking down “zone jumpers” — parents who register their children in public schools outside of their local attendance zones, sometimes across parish lines.
What may seem to many a petty annoyance could have big consequences for school systems.
School districts that lose students can also lose state funds that are based primarily on enrollment. School districts that unknowingly take in students from other districts are educating children whose parents pay school taxes elsewhere. And districts under desegregation mandates could get hauled back into court if zone jumping becomes a large problem.
“Superintendents are becoming more aware that local dollars are following students out of their districts, which is why it’s becoming really important for districts to verify student residencies,” said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.
Officials at high-performing school districts — such as Central, Zachary, Livingston, Ascension and West Baton Rouge — say their districts are targeted by zone jumpers from nearby districts with lower academic ratings.
“We understand fully that parents want the best education for their kids,” said Tim Jordan, supervisor of school home relations for the Zachary Community School District. “But you have to live in Zachary to attend school here.”
The importance of students attending public schools within their proper attendance zones was historically tied to desegregation cases, Richard said.
Baton Rouge attorney Bob Hammonds said local systems have the power to draw attendance zones within their districts. For many districts, he added, those zones must adhere to federal mandates related to desegregation cases.
“We probably didn’t have much zone jumping before we had desegregation cases,” Hammonds said. “But after desegregation, we still have the issue because we have parents that feel certain schools are better than other schools, so they’re going to do what they can legally, or illegally, to get their children into those schools.”
Most school districts require parents to prove residency when registering children for school through documents such as lease agreements, mortgage papers, proof of homestead exemption, utility bills and state-issued identification.
Fontenot said he has discovered out-of-parish parents using the addresses of relatives or friends living in West Baton Rouge Parish to register their children, claiming the child lives there full time.
“I go to homes and verify if the address is the permanent residence of the student and their legal guardian,” he said. “I go inside. I’m checking to see if they have a bedroom there (and) clothes. It’s detective work basically. I have to believe this is their permanent residency.”
Fontenot, a school resource officer for the parish school district, was hired through a mutual agreement between the West Baton Rouge Parish School Board and the town of Brusly, which split the cost of Fontenot’s $31,200 annual salary and associated benefits.
Robert Williams, director of student services for the Central Community School System, said zone jumpers have gone as far as renting apartments in his district so they could submit the required documentation to register their children in school.
He said some families will move briefly into the district, then move out and continue to drop their children off at the school or the assigned bus stop.
Officials from several districts say they find out about zone-jumping students from school principals, residents who witness suspect behavior, and bus drivers who see parents dropping off their children at bus stops.
Williams estimates about 80 zone jumpers a year are caught infiltrating the Central Community School System.
Central gets most of its violators from the parish, Baker school districts and a few from East Feliciana Parish, he said.
A student’s excessive tardiness to school is another indicator, said Ed Foster, child welfare and attendance supervisor for the Livingston Parish school system.
Foster said he identifies about 50 zone jumpers a year, mainly from East Baton Rouge, St. Helena and Tangipahoa parishes.
But Foster said he suspects hundreds of children “fly under the radar” because limited funding prevents him from policing zone jumping as aggressively as other districts that can afford to hire school resource officers like Fontenot.
Ascension Parish Schools Truancy Coordinator Cleveland Washington said his officers expose about 15 to 20 zone jumpers every year.
Washington said they come into Ascension primarily from East Baton Rouge, Iberville and Assumption parishes.
Washington added that Ascension has seen its zone- jumping numbers dwindle over the past several years after the School Board adopted a stricter registration procedure, which includes a central location for parents to register children with proper residency documentation.
Jordan declined to estimate how many illegally registered children he has discovered in the Zachary Community School District.
“I think we’re doing a very good job policing it,” he said. “People pay a lot in property taxes here. When we hear there might be a family here illegally, we jump on that right away.”
Since hiring Fontenot in May, West Baton Rouge has ejected 65 illegally registered students, said Charlotte Blanchard, supervisor of Instruction and Child Welfare.
“Since the word got out that we’re policing this a lot more, we’ve been having less people trying to enroll in school illegally here,” Blanchard said.
In East Baton Rouge Parish, zone jumping looks a little different than in other districts.
Zone jumping in the parish is an intradistrict issue, with parents registering children for schools across school attendance zones within the parish, said Tirzah Smith, Child Welfare and Attendance supervisor.
Smith could not say how many illegally registered students the school system’s eight child welfare and attendance supervisors discover a year.
“I’m not saying it’s a huge problem, but it’s significant,” she said. “We have supervisors assigned at different schools to monitor this. That’s part of the way we regulate it.”
Domoine Rutledge, attorney for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, said the district’s magnet schools and sites with special-needs programs are often the attractive choice for parents.
Students who don’t live in the parish school district — including those who live in the parish but are within the separate Baker, Zachary and Central school districts — cannot attend the magnet schools run by the parish school district, Rutledge added.
Eric Lewis, director of the Louisiana chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Opportunities, said parents have been zone jumping within the East Baton Rouge school system, and out of it, for years.
Lewis’ group is a nonprofit that supports parental school choice.
Even with all of its magnet program options, Lewis said, the East Baton Rouge school system is still not meeting the needs of parents.
“If you’re looking for a solution to parents crossing district lines, just provide parents access to quality schools in neighborhoods,” Lewis said. “This was 20 years ago, but when I went to Glen Oaks High, I knew kids that went to Belaire and Baker high schools because their parents felt like Glen Oaks wasn’t safe.”
Barbara Thomas said she resorted to zone jumping outside her child’s attendance zone more than 20 years ago because she didn’t feel the East Baton Rouge school system could offer her son a good education.
Thomas said her son, who is now 33, was zoned to attend Glen Oaks Middle School in 1992. After being placed on a waiting list for magnet schools within East Baton Rouge Parish, Thomas said, she enrolled him at Northwestern Middle School in Zachary before the district broke away from the parish school system in 2003.
“He was a bright kid and I wanted him to go to a better school,” she said.
When caught for zone jumping, officials in most parishes said, parents are usually given up to three days to withdraw their children from the school.
But West Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent David Corona said he will allow students to finish the semester if they are exposed.
“I don’t want to punish a kid for the sins of the adult,” he said. “I don’t want to disrupt their learning.”
No state law prohibits children from attending public schools outside of their residential school districts, said state Education Department spokesman Barry Landry.
Hammonds and local officials said there haven’t been any legal ramifications — as of yet — related to zone jumping in the Baton Rouge area. But nationally, there have been multiple reports of parents being sued by school districts and even imprisoned for illegally enrolling their children in schools outside their districts.
The school board association’s Richard said state law allows students to attend schools in other parishes under the mutual agreement of the school boards of both districts. The statute also allows for the transfer of school funds and other payments from the state associated with those transferred students.
Brandi Gonzales, child welfare and attendance supervisor for the Lafayette Parish school system, said accepting students from other parishes in cooperation with the superintendent in a student’s home district has stopped zone jumping from becoming a major issue in her district.
“We have a legitimate process and welcome outside students to schools with available space,” Gonzales said in an email.
Like the East Baton Rouge system, Gonzales said, zone jumping in Lafayette is more of an internal issue.
Gonzales added that intradistrict zone jumping is not a significant problem because Lafayette Parish has a Schools of Choice program that offers parents opportunities to enroll their children in specialized academies within the district.
Richard noted that school districts may be reluctant to let their students attend other districts because it would mean a loss in Minimum Foundation Program money, the state funding to local districts based largely on enrollment.
The state’s new voucher program, which gives low-income students funding to withdraw from low-performing schools and attend private, parochial or charter schools, is another financial blow to local school districts, he said.
The combination of the state’s voucher program and zone jumping are having “tremendous effect on funding for these districts,” Richard said.
St. Helena Parish School Superintendent Kelli Joseph said her school district loses a significant number of students to both zone jumping and the state’s voucher program.
St. Helena Parish is one of the state’s lowest-rated school districts.
The parish system, which runs the primary and the high school, and the state Recovery School District, which runs the parish’s middle school, both got F’s in the state education department’s 2012 district performance report.
“I think we lose hundreds of kids a year; it’s unreal,” Joseph said. “But it’s not only MFP dollars going away from the district, but also parental support and appreciation as well.”
Joseph said the only way to stop parents from sending their children to schools outside the district is by building public confidence in the St. Helena district.
“I can’t knock a parent for wanting quality schools for their children,” she said. “But you need support from the community, and you can’t get that support from having their children cross parish lines to attend school.”
Copyright © 2011, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved