Parents desperate to get their kids into some schools, including Berkeley High School, will cheat their way in. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Parents desperate to get their kids into some schools, including Berkeley High School, cheat their way in. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

When Sarah James went to the first meeting for her daughter’s freshman crew team at Berkeley High School, she wanted to form a carpool for the 6 a.m. practices.

But James (not her real name) lived in Oakland and had enrolled her daughter using a false address. James did not think she would find any other crew members living near her Rockridge bungalow, but she needn’t have worried. That fall, there were four other girls on the team who lived in Oakland, James said.

The official freshman crew roster, however, showed that everyone had a Berkeley address.

That was nearly 10 years ago, but people haven’t stopped enrolling their kids illegally in Berkeley schools. Everyone seems to know a case: people using relatives’ addresses, friends’ addresses, or even rental property owned by the family who lives out of town. One recent gossip item on a local internet site: a man with a boat at the Berkeley marina, using that address to enroll his child, who lives in another city.

Berkeley Unified School District says illegal enrollment is common in many districts across the state. Photo: Kaia Diringer
Berkeley Unified School District says illegal enrollment is common in many districts across the state. Photo: Kaia Diringer

Illegal enrollment is a problem common to strong school districts around the state, especially those that border districts with underperforming schools. Parents desperate to get their kids into schools with high test scores, clean campuses, and dedicated teachers, will cheat their way in, often rationalizing their actions by saying it really isn’t a burden to anyone.

“This comes up with a lot of districts,” said Neil Smith, an assistant superintendent for the Berkeley Unified School District. “I don’t want Berkeley to think they’re the only ones.”

Nobody knows exactly how many students are illegally enrolled in Berkeley schools, but many agree that they can be a burden to the system. Nine years ago, in the only known comprehensive report made on the subject, a UC Berkeley graduate student estimated illegal enrollment was around 10%. A current district administrator says that number has declined, while an outside critic believes it has gone up.

The number of students enrolled in Berkeley schools is at a high: 9,581. On some campuses, there is not enough room to teach all those children, forcing the district to use portable classrooms. This has been a particularly volatile issue at Washington Elementary School this year. Berkeley High School just finished construction on a $46 million building that replaced some portables, and added a new gym and locker room. Overcrowding can make it difficult to get into popular classes. There are wait-lists for after-school care.

“It wouldn’t bother me too much if the schools weren’t so crowded, with elementary enrollment expected to continue to grow over a few more years,” Lauren Rebusi wrote on Berkeleyside’s Facebook page. “Where are all those kids going to go?”

The number of grade-schoolers who don’t use the school bus service is cited as evidence of fraudulent enrollment. Photo: BUSD
The number of grade-schoolers who don’t use the school bus service is cited as evidence of fraudulent enrollment. Photo: BUSD

About a dozen Berkeleyside regulars comment frequently – and angrily — on illegal enrollment. Are others are angry? The Berkeley Accountable Schools Project, an online, anonymous watchdog group, has 75 people who have signed up for e-mail updates, and 55 who have signed a petition to the school board.

But many parents say they have mixed feelings about the problem.

The critics’ concerns come down to money: Berkeley residents pay extra taxes to supplement schools, so it seems unfair to let non-residents take advantage of that.

But research reveals that the question is more nuanced and difficult than appears at first glance. While illegally enrolled school children may place extra burdens on the district, they also bring in more state funds than they consume in local taxes, according to one analyst. In short, they may make money for the district.

Debate over the situation may soon intensify, as BUSD will be asking Berkeley residents to renew a school tax in two years.

“I will not vote for more school taxes unless and until real, consistent address verification is instituted,” wrote Fran Haselsteiner on Berkeleyside’s Facebook page.

An indication of the sensitivity of this issue is that very few people were willing to talk to Berkeleyside on the record about illegal enrollment. This includes parents, teachers, and community members. They all asked to be anonymous – including the person who runs a website dedicated to BUSD’s enrollment issues.

When contacted about the issue of illegal enrollment, Superintendent Donald Evans declined to talk to Berkeleyside.

There are strong opinions about illegal enrollment in the community, which starts as early as kindergarten, but many parents and officials won't talk about the issue publicly. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
There are strong opinions about illegal enrollment in the community, which starts as early as kindergarten, but many parents and officials won’t talk about the issue publicly. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
There are strong opinions about illegal enrollment in the community, which starts as early as kindergarten, but many parents and officials won’t talk about the issue publicly. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Funding: a combination of state and tax money

California schools receive the bulk of their funding from the state, based on the number of students who attend each day. That number is called the average daily attendance, or ADA. While students are supposed to live in the district, or have a transfer permit, the illegally enrolled students also bring in ADA funds.

Berkeley schools are projected to receive about $7,550 per student for this school year, with a projected ADA of 8,965 students according to Javetta Cleveland, deputy superintendent of business services.

In addition, Berkeley residents pay a parcel tax, called BSEP (Berkeley Schools Excellence Program), to supplement the schools’ budgets. Two-thirds of the BSEP money goes to reducing class sizes, with the rest making libraries, music and other programs possible.

Residents pay nearly 28 cents per square foot on their homes (so a 1,000-square-foot  home would be taxed $279), while businesses pay just over 42 cents per square foot. This tax brought in $24.6 million for 2013-14. If that were calculated on a per student basis, it would equal $2,568 each, said BSEP director Natasha Beery.

One 9-year-old study found that illegally enrolled students were a net financial benefit to the district. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD
One 9-year-old study found that illegally enrolled students were a net financial benefit to the district. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD

Nearly 10 years ago, a UC Berkeley graduate student looked at this equation of ADA state funding versus BSEP and concluded that illegally enrolled students were a net financial benefit. Even though these students “diffused” the BSEP tax, they also brought in between $1 million and $1.5 million per year in ADA funds, the graduate student, Rinat Fried, calculated.

“Larger enrollment means more discretionary revenue for the district, which appears to compensate for BSEP diffusion,” Fried wrote in her 2005 report called Attending to the Bottom Line: Boosting District Revenue and Enhancing Educational Mission Through Interdistrict Enrollment & Attendance Policy. The report was part of her graduate work at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

To arrive at this conclusion, Fried first had to calculate how many “unofficial transfers,” as she put it, were attending Berkeley schools.

How big is the problem?

In the 2005 report, Fried wrote that, until then, the district “never attempted to estimate the number of inter-district students attending unofficially.” At the time, there were a total of roughly 9,000 students in the district, down from a peak of about 9,500 in 2000. Enrollment has now surpassed that level.

Fried wrote that the district attendance manager, Francisco Martinez, estimated at that time that “between 7% and 12% of currently [2005] enrolled students in the district attend unofficially.”

Fried went on to try to verify that estimate, using four methods, and concluded that about 8% to 12% of students — 720 to 1,075 kids — were illegally enrolled at the time.

She checked 2000 census records for the number of children living in Berkeley (factoring in private school enrollment), which yielded a 7.8% unofficial enrollment rate. She also crosschecked addresses for phone numbers with out-of-Berkeley exchanges, and came up with an 8% to 14% rate. Her look at feeder schools among Berkeley High freshman suggested that 10% were illegally enrolled. And, finally, she surveyed teachers in one Berkeley elementary school, asking them to mark names of students who lived elsewhere. Double checking for transfer permits, the results suggested that 16% of that school’s students were illegally enrolled. Combining these four methods, she came up with the 8-to-12% figures [p. 19 of the report].

Students at Berkeley High school
Estimates of the number of illegally enrolled students in the district, including at Berkeley High, are hard to pin down. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Fried, who now works for the Oakland School District, declined to comment on her report for this news story.

District administrators initially hesitated to provide Berkeleyside with a current estimate of the number of illegally enrolled students. But, just recently, Martinez, the admissions director, said that he thinks the percent of students attending illegally from out of district is “much lower than it was before (at the time of Fried’s report),” although he declined to actually make an estimate.

In the nine years since Fried’s report appeared, BUSD has taken a number of steps to research and cut down on illegal enrollment, said Martinez. That includes hiring an investigator to make home visits to verify people’s addresses and updating the status of homeless families. “We are doing a much more thorough job now,” Martinez said.

On the other hand, the BASP website author, who insists on anonymity, says he has analyzed recent census data using Fried’s methods, and believes illegal enrollments have gone up: “The number of fraudulently enrolled students in 2009, 2010, 2011-2012 ranges from one to three times what Fried measured in her study,” he said.

Lack of data leads to rampant speculation

So have illegal enrollments gone up or gone down? The lack of publicly shared data makes for a lot of speculation.

In online forums, and in off-the-record calls to Berkeleyside reporters, residents point to their evidence of enrollment fraud: the number of kids coming into Berkeley on BART every morning, the number of grade-schoolers who don’t use school bus service, the number of families who don’t list addresses in school directories.

Observers point to demographics as well; because the percentage of African-American students in Berkeley schools is higher than the percentage of African-American residents reported in the 2010 census for the city, many of those kids must be from other cities, critics argue. Those claims bring out accusations of racism, and the conversation gets ugly.

BUSD says there is not a particular demographic group enrolling fraudulently, rather it covers the whole spectrum. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD
BUSD says there is not a particular demographic group enrolling fraudulently, rather it covers the whole spectrum. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD

The problem for parents isn’t just about tax money. Some complain that the out-of-district students, who are presumed to come from low-income families, are creating more discipline problems. Others complain about the “rich Oakland Hills” families that send their kids to Berkeley for a free ride.

“There’s not a particular group (enrolling fraudulently),” Martinez said. “It covers the whole spectrum.”

However, amidst all the speculation, one factor that casual observers need to consider is that more than 1,000 students without permanent Berkeley addresses attend Berkeley schools legally. In addition, a large number of children in joint custody live in two households, and so may appear to be out-of-towners. In other words, the number of “unofficial transfers” may be lower than it appears.

Josh Daniels. Photo: Josh Daniels
Josh Daniels: he himself sometimes traveled to Berkeley schools from outside the city. Photo: Josh Daniels

“[This enrollment issue] is much more complicated than people would like to think it is,” said School Board President Josh Daniels.

Daniels pointed to his own case, growing up in Berkeley. When he was 6, his parents divorced and his dad moved to Walnut Creek. Daniels split his time between the two homes, so sometimes he was coming to school from Walnut Creek. The district doesn’t have numbers for how many kids live in more than one household, since only their Berkeley address is required.

Cathy Campbell, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, agreed that residency can be complicated when students have fluctuating home situations.

“They are in and out of Berkeley, living with a grandmother for a while, an aunt for while. There’s a flow of families in and out of Berkeley –- that’s part of what makes it complex,” Campbell said.

Then there are the transfer students — meaning they live in another city and have requested to transfer from their local school district to Berkeley. Martinez said there are 599 transfers this year, out of roughly 9,500 students — about 6% of the student population. That’s about 46 students per grade. According to Asst. BUSD Superintendent Smith, transfer numbers have gone way down since the era of Superintendent Jack McLaughlin, who believed in boosting revenue by filling empty classroom space with transfers.

This year, 48 transfer students were newly admitted. Of those, 30 are the children of employees. (The union contract gives employees the right to enroll their children in Berkeley schools, regardless of where they live.) Half were admitted to kindergarten, the rest to other grades. About one-third of transfer permit requests were granted; two-thirds were turned down for lack of space.

(Albany appears to have far more transfer students than Berkeley: 12% of its 3,850 students last year, compared to Berkeley’s 6% of the student body this year. Still, in recent years, said an administrator, Albany has been accepting only employees’ children as transfers.)

Another 5% of students in Berkeley schools are listed as homeless — that’s 478 kids at present, according to Susan Craig, director of student services. The majority of homeless families in the district are doubled up in homes with friends or relatives, according to Craig, with a smaller number living in motels, shelters, transitional housing, vehicles and churches.

“If they lack a fixed night-time residence, they are, by federal definition, homeless,” Craig said.

No matter where they land temporarily — Berkeley or elsewhere — they have the right, under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act, to stay at the school they were already in, if they choose to do so. The goal is to provide one source of stability in the children’s lives, while their families move around. (See p. 13 of the act.) If families resettle permanently in another community, they are expected to enroll their kids there.

In the recent past, the district did not check in with homeless families to find out if they were still homeless, Craig said. Clearly, this represented an opportunity to stay in Berkeley schools for the formerly homeless. It’s even possible families that were never homeless registered as such in kindergarten in order to get into the district.

And, in fact, the current school year started with 600 students listed as homeless. In the fall of 2013, for the first time, district officials asked the families to verify their status; 122 came forward with the information that they are not homeless now. Those 122 students are allowed to finish out the school year, but, if they no longer live in Berkeley, they will have to request – and be granted – a transfer in order to return next year. Another status check is currently underway, Martinez said.

In summary, that’s 1,077 students — 11% of the student population of about 9,500 — who don’t have a permanent home in Berkeley, but attend school here legally. That makes for a lot of kids not on the school bus or perhaps taking BART to school.

Still, no one – neither district administrators, nor school board members – is denying that others are here illegally.

Proof of residency: three proofs required

Critics say the district should do more to catch people cheating their way into school.

What the school district does now is require three proofs of residency from families entering the district. One must be a utility bill (PG&E, water, garbage, phone, cable, internet). The other two can include a driver’s license, bank statement, or paycheck stub.

What the district doesn’t ask for is a mortgage document or a rental lease.

The Berkeley Accountable Schools Project recommends that the district require a deed or rental lease, and that renters provide a copy of the landlord’s rental license. The idea is that proof of ownership or rental would make enrollment fraud more difficult to pull off.

First day of school at John Muir Elementary: BUSD now requires three proofs of residency from families entering the district. Photo: BUSD/Mark Coplan
First day of school at John Muir Elementary: BUSD now requires three proofs of residency from families entering the district. Photo: Mark Coplan

But Martinez, who has been admissions manager for 14 years, says that leases can be faked, making them almost worthless.

“It’s easy to find a lease online,” Martinez said. Furthermore, bona fide mortgages can be used falsely, if they are for property in Berkeley that the parents rent out, while they live elsewhere.

The idea is that utility bills are not as easy to fake. However, one parent who spoke to Berkeleyside last fall demonstrated a way around that. An Oakland mom, she used her parents’ Berkeley address to enroll her son at Berkeley High this past year. She took over their bills, set up a bank account at that address, and changed her driver’s license.

Knowing that her parents had paid tax in Berkeley since the 1980s and never sent anyone to public school helped ease her conscience, she said.

“The hardest part about this is asking ‘David’ to lie,” said the mother. She had looked at Oakland Tech for her son, she said, but Berkeley High seemed better organized and less chaotic. They couldn’t afford private school.

So if leases and utility bills can be faked, what can and does the district do?

Enrollment enforcement: home visits require respect

Martinez said that when something on an enrollment form seems off — a telephone exchange from outside Berkeley for example — his office checks it. In some cases, a BUSD employee makes a home visit to verify the child lives at the address. Sometimes, Martinez said, when parents are told there could be a home visit, they come forward and admit to using a false address.

Martinez said visits generally occur early in the morning before school or in the evening. The child must be home and is often asked to show the inspector around the house, including where they sleep and where they keep their belongings. It’s an awkward job.

“We have to be respectful and ask for permission,” Martinez said.

District staff members (mainly one employee), conducted 358 home visits for the 2013-2014 school year (mostly in the summer before school began). This year, 290 of those cases were approved for enrollment, while 66 were denied.

“This past summer we really ramped up the home visit process. There were more denials to families,” Craig said.

Of those home visits, 27 of them were to families with caregiver affidavits. Those are cases where the child lives full-time with another adult, often a grandparent, in Berkeley, while the parents live elsewhere. Every caregiver affidavit situation gets a home visit, Martinez said.

The district first hired an investigator in 2005, but the position was empty for a while a few years later. It has since been filled. This year, the district hired another part-time person to help with address verifications.

In addition, every student’s address gets re-checked when they submit their paperwork to enter middle school, Martinez said. Re-verifications don’t happen again for entering high school, but Martinez said it’s being considered.

In a related issue, the district also takes a look at its legal transfer students every year, Martinez said. Each principal is given a list of transfer students, who must have a good record of attendance, no serious discipline problems, and a satisfactory academic performance to continue at the school. If students don’t meet all of those requirements, their transfer permit is not renewed. Students are advised of these conditions when they get their transfer permit, and if they’re not doing well, they receive a warning letter in January. This past summer, the district denied permits to 108 students for these reasons, and kept another 553 students

What Berkeley’s neighbors are doing

Critics say Berkeley Unified should follow the example of neighboring districts, and do more to verify residency.

Piedmont, one of the most highly regarded school districts in Northern California, has developed a complex set of rules to make sure its students live in Piedmont.

Piedmont requires that both parents, if married, live in town. This is to prevent a family from renting a place in Piedmont to gain access to the school system, while maintaining a primary residence elsewhere.

If divorced parents have joint custody, the student must live 50% of the time with the parent in Piedmont (at least during the school year). The district reserves the right to see custody papers.

“If a student had one parent that lived in Berkeley and stayed once in a while with their parent who lived in Piedmont,” then that child would be considered a resident of Berkeley for the purposes of school enrollment,” said Constance Hubbard, the superintendent of the Piedmont Unified School District.

As for paperwork, in addition to three proofs of residency — similar to Berkeley’s list of accepted documents — Piedmont also requires a grant deed, a property tax statement, or a rental lease.

To discourage people from assuming the bills of a Piedmont homeowner (like ‘David’’s mother), the school district reserves the right to prosecute anyone who allows their address to be used to register a student falsely, although, Hubbard said that she does not think anyone has ever been prosecuted.

Piedmont also has an on-call, hourly investigator who makes home visits, often early in the morning. The most home visits the investigator has made in a year is five, according to Constance Hubbard, the school superintendent.

In 2011, the Albany Unified School District made a concerted effort to identify fraudulently enrolled students. First the district offered amnesty; if families came forward, those students could finish the school year, and apply for a transfer to stay.

After the amnesty, any student caught would be kicked out of school right away. By October 2011, the district had discovered 35 students enrolled illegally and were scrutinizing another 200.

Since 2011, Albany has required all families to verify their residency every year, according to Marsha Brown, director of student services, and, like in Piedmont, a mortgage or lease document is required.

“Does it act as a deterrent?” Brown said about the annual re-verification. “I believe so. Is it foolproof? No.” Just recently, she said, the district found three families using the same rental address – so clearly attempts at fraud continue. Brown said she thought about 95% of Albany parents support the annual re-verification process. Albany residents, like Berkeley, pay a parcel tax to benefit the schools.

The Beverly Hills Unified School District in Southern California also requires families to re-verify their addresses. Officials randomly select one-third of the student body to check every year, according to a BHUSD spokesman. Prior to this re-verification, in 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported an example of enrollment fraud in Beverly Hills that could have come out of a Hollywood script: “One memorable incident involved the parent who went to a Beverly Hills home and placed a mailbox with her name on it in the front yard. The actual owner alerted school officials, who removed the box and expelled the student…”

Illegal enrollment not always best for the student

Another problem with students attending illegally, Fried stated in her 2005 report, is that it can put the students at a disadvantage.

In talking to grade-school teachers, who often knew where students lived, Fried found that the unofficially enrolled students had more tardies – often due to commutes and traffic — and so missed more time in school.

In one case, the teacher said of a struggling learner from Concord who missed reading class many days, “We believe [he] would be better off at a [Concord] school.”

Another concern was lack of contact with the families trying to lie low. Sometimes teachers found the phone numbers listed for those families were not correct.

Students at King Middle School: illegal enrollment is not always the best choice for kids. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Students at King Middle School: illegal enrollment is not always the best choice for kids. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD

However, according to one Berkeley High School teacher, that problem has diminished over the past decade, with email, cellphones and PowerSchool, the online student record system accessible to families.

“It’s a lot easier to reach parents now. I can assume there’s a cellphone and I am getting a parent directly,” the teacher said.

The teacher, along with many BUSD officials and school board members, seems to have an unstated belief that Berkeley is a more tolerant, inclusive community that sees the benefit of an educated citizenry. As such, Berkeley has a responsibility to all students – even those who live outside the district. What would happen to those students kicked out? Would the older students transfer to their hometown schools, or would some drop out? What would happen to struggling students if they attended a school with fewer resources?

“If you have an opportunity to educate more students in a more stable environment, at a better school, why would we limit that?” said the teacher. “We don’t see out of district kids as a drawback. In fact, I want to teach as many kids as possible.”

In Rinat Fried’s 2005 report she recommended that Berkeley “regularize” its unofficial transfers because of the financial gain, and try to get them enrolled legally. To do this, she said, the district would have to require “stricter proof of residency rules.”

This recommendation has a flaw though, said board member Josh Daniels. To transfer legally, the students need to get a release from their hometown district — which another district might decline to do as it would rather keep ADA funding than give it away to Berkeley.

The Berkeley Accountable Schools Project website recommends that, in addition to tightening documentation requirements, the district should establish an anonymous tip-line to report illegal enrollments, follow up on those, and offer an amnesty program to lower enforcement costs.

What does the district plan to do?

With the hiring in recent years of home inspectors, the increased number of home visits last summer, and the follow-up last fall on homeless families, the district contends it is taking steps towards reducing unofficial transfers. The district also is working harder to scrutinize incoming enrollments, Martinez said.

“We’re trying to prevent the problem rather than having to deal with it later,” he said.

But it has not taken any of the larger measures called for by critics. With enrollment for kindergarten in the fall already underway, no changes have been made to documentation requirements.

And an annual re-verification of all students, like Albany does, would require more staff.

The BUSD school board meeting at its new meeting space on Bonar St.: the district contends it is taking steps towards reducing unofficial transfers. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD
The BUSD school board at its new meeting space on Bonar Street: the district contends it is taking steps towards reducing unofficial transfers. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD

One anonymous teacher claimed that the teachers union doesn’t support cracking down.

“From my many years as a teacher in Berkeley …. The teachers’ union is very aware of the problem, but their response is they don’t care about enforcing the rules because more students (from wherever) means more jobs for Berkeley teachers (and consequently more dues-paying members),” wrote the commentator who identified himself or herself as “rhuberry.” “I was on the BFT [teachers union] executive board for a few years so I know of what I speak. Complaints would come in from teachers who felt overwhelmed by too many difficult students, many from out of district, and wanted some support from the union. Union wouldn’t take a stand on enforcing enrollment procedures.”

Asst. Superintendent Smith called the issue “important — it’s on our radar — people are aware of it.” But pressed on priorities, Smith said: “Of course, it’s not our number one priority. We have to educate the kids that are here.”

He added: “This year, the transition to Common Core is a major undertaking. And now there’s a new local control funding formula and accountability plan. It’s a major change in how district receives and spends state funding.”

In other words, the district has its hands full.

School Board President Josh Daniels also stressed that the district has a lot of other issues on its plate. And he declined to speak for the whole board, because the board hasn’t discussed the issue, as a group, in quite a while. (“Although I know individually we’ve been thinking about it,” Daniels said.)

Speaking only for himself, Daniels said that he understands that parents want to see the issue as simple when their kids are crowded into classrooms and put on wait-lists. “But the problem is not easily definable. And the solution is even more difficult.”

That said, Daniels indicated that the district and the community will probably be discussing illegal enrollment over the next two years. “We’re going to engage in a pretty robust process in terms of developing next BSEP measure,” he said. “If it appears more attention [to illegal enrollment] is necessary, we can address it through that process.”

Frances Dinkelspiel contributed to the reporting of this article.

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Mary Flaherty is a freelance reporter who has lived in the Berkeley area for since 1994. She earned a masters in journalism from UC Berkeley, and has reported for several local papers and copyedited for...