The first day of school will be Aug. 6 and district officials are urging parents and guardians to attend Open House from 4-7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 5, to pick up schedules and iron out any details about residency and how local residents can confirm where their child lives.
“There has been concern voiced by this board and the community about how we accept students to our schools,” said Assistant Superintendent Chad Spence, speaking at last week’s Houston School Board meeting. “We all know that we’ve had a problem in the past with students enrolling in our schools when they legally live in another district.”
Districts are paid by the state based on average daily attendance and schools in Houlka and Okolona suffer when students in those districts do not attend those schools. Taxpayers in the Houston School District also pay school taxes for children in their homes and those dollars are diluted when out-of-district students illegally attend Houston schools.
Spence said all students of the Houston School District will be required to provide two proofs of residency at the beginning of the school year.
Acceptable proofs of residency are:
• Filed homestead exemption form.
• Mortgage documents or property deeds.
• Apartment or home lease agreement.
• Utility bills showing physical address.
• Bills or government documents with physical address and name.
Houston Board Attorney Jimmy Hood said students who live with Houston residents other than their parents will need to provide proof they are the child’s legal guardian.
“Just because they live with a grandparent or someone else does not allow that child to claim residency here,” said Hood. “The district and the community have a right to examine those documents if your child is going to attend our schools.”
Exactly how the district will enforce this policy for students who are shuffled from family member to family member is not known.
“The bus drivers know who lives there,” said Trustee Carol Byrne. “When a car pulls up in the driveway in the morning and kids get out and then get on the bus, something isn’t right.”
Again, the district said the goal is not to exclude anyone, but to make sure those legally living and paying taxes in the district get the best use of district dollars.
Houston’s State Accountability Rating has repeatedly suffered because of a drop-out rate that shows one-quarter of students who start the ninth grade with the district don’t graduate. Many of those students attend for a year or two and then can’t be found by district officials when they stop attending class.
Houston schools had half of their students qualify for school lunches last year and that funding is directly tied to district population numbers. Students who qualify for reduced lunches must be fed regardless of where their parents pay school taxes.
“One of the first things we check when we have a discipline problem is if the student is a legal resident of the district,” said Spence. “We will be monitoring that – especially mid year transfers — much more closely. We have enough problems. We don’t need somebody else’s.”
Last summer Trustee Daniel Heeringa asked the district to begin keeping records on transfers to and from the district to see who was coming and who was leaving Houston schools and why.
Last year the Chickasaw County School District prevented a family of three students, one a senior, from transferring back to Pontotoc County Schools after they bought a home on the edge of Chickasaw County. The Chickasaw County School Board cited U.S. Department of Justice guidelines for racial ratios and segregation mandates in the district as the reason for not allowing the transfer.
Chickasaw County schools do allow residents who are teachers for other districts to transfer their children to that district.
Okolona schools do not traditionally allow students to transfer from the district unless their parents will be teachers in that district that year. Okolona does allow transfers from Houston and Chickasaw County schools to enroll on a regular basis.
Houston is a larger school district than either Houlka or Okolona and transfers would not have as big an influence on racial ratios.
The Mississippi State Board of Education is reminding parents that falsely giving residency information is a misdemeanor and conviction can see the parent or guardian fined. Several cities in Mississippi have passed ordinances making conviction for giving false residency information to school officials punishable with up to a $1,000 fine and 10 days in jail.
Superintendents at Houston, Okolona and Chickasaw County schools said their district will be a little more vigilant this year and urged parents and guardians to assist them in following the law.
“There is a process students can go through to change districts and people need to follow it,” Houston Superintendent Dr. Steve Coker said earlier this year. “We don’t have many people leave our district but we do have many that want to enroll here.”
All additions or transfers to Houston School District must be approved by the school board. The district asks for both a student’s academic and discipline records before it approves a transfer.
Okolona Superintendent Dexter Green said Okolona has a problem with students living in the district and attending other schools.
“That hurts our MAEP (Mississippi Adequate Education Program) funding and our average daily attendance numbers,” said Green. “That is how this district – every district – qualifies for state and federal money.”
He also pointed out Okolona has made great strides to improve their schools and it starts with community support.
“We prefer our students attend our schools,” said Green. “Our school board has worked hard to help build this community and we need the community’s support for our schools. That means people from Okolona should send their children to Okolona schools.”
Parents of Houston School District who feel a student in their child’s class may not be a resident should contact the district. Non-compliance issues are usually made to the school principal who forwards them on to the Superintendent or his designee for additional investigation and further action.
Any new student who has not enrolled in the Houston Public School District and has not previously registered may register starting Aug. 1. Students will be issued schedules and homeroom assignments upon completion of residency verification.
Houlka will start classes Aug. 6, and Okolona will start classes Aug. 11. Students or parents must provide proof of residency before students can enroll in classes.
Students enrolled in a school without proper residence verification and without an approved transfer can be forced to withdraw from the school in which they are illegally enrolled.
Students who are illegally enrolled can see their parent or guardian held liable to reimburse the
district for expenses incurred to educate their student, or civil action resulting from fraud, negligent misrepresentation and child negligence.