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Residency fraud at top schools vexes city

Proposal would require year in Boston for test

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / April 23, 2010

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History shows that some suburban parents go to great lengths, even resorting to lying, to skirt Boston residency requirements so their children can attend Boston Latin School, the crown jewel of the city’s school system, long considered on par with elite private institutions.

There are those who falsely say their children are living with other family members in Boston, school officials say. Others secure a six-month lease on a Boston apartment but do not move in, simply using it to prove residency during the admission period for Latin and the district’s other two exam schools.

So far this year, Boston public schools have revoked acceptance offers to four would-be exam school students for next fall because they do not live in the city, while another 31 are being investigated for possibly falsifying residency documents. Those students represent the vast majority of the 48 exam-school invitees who took the entrance test last fall as nonresidents and who later filed paperwork indicating they had moved to the city.

Next Wednesday, the City Council will take up a resolution urging the School Committee to tighten its residency requirements by allowing only those students who have lived in the city for at least a year to take the entrance exam.

The proposal, filed this week by Councilor John M. Tobin Jr., is aimed not only at reducing fraud but also discouraging families from moving to the city at the last minute for the sole purpose of an exam-school education. The rule would be similar to those in place for civil service exams for the Boston Police and Fire departments.

“In some cases, a spot at an exam school is being taken from Boston families by speculators, people who have not invested in the city,’’ Tobin said.

The resolution, which is nonbinding because the School Committee has jurisdiction over the matter, is the latest effort to crack down on residency fraud in the city’s school system. The problem extends beyond exam schools. Some out-of-town families falsify residency documents to get children into preschool programs to save on day-care costs or into special-education programs that may be better than the ones in their hometown districts.

Matthew Wilder, a School Department spokesman, said he could not comment on the resolution because the department has not yet received a copy.

“People, we hope, would be honest and truthful when registering to attend these schools,’’ Wilder said. “Unfortunately, in some cases they are not. We work really hard to make sure students who attend these schools are Boston residents.’’

The city has taken steps to clamp down on the problem. Six years ago, the School Committee hired a full-time investigator to pursue suspected cases of fraud, established an anonymous tip line for the public to report possible violations, and increased the number of documents parents must file to prove residency from two to at least three.

The committee also tightened residency requirements for the exam schools, mandating that out-of-town exam takers establish residency by early February, several weeks before admission invitations are sent out. Previously, students had until July 31 to establish residency. The change was a compromise; Mayor Thomas M. Menino wanted residency established by the fall testing day.

Yet admission fraud persists, a particularly difficult issue at the city’s three exam schools — Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science — where admission policies have long been a source of contention. Over the last five years, the School Department has dismissed 53 students from its exam schools, primarily Boston Latin School, for living outside the city.

The vast majority of cases get resolved without going to court, Wilder said.

Dozens of tutoring and counseling firms have sprouted in Boston around the exam schools, promising parents they will give their children an edge in getting in. The School Department also offers rigorous course work for students in the upper grades of elementary school to prepare them for possible exam school admittance. Families often boast about the blood, sweat, and tears they have endured for the chance to have their children receive an exam-school education.

So the mere thought of outsiders — whether through fraud or a last-minute move from the suburbs — taking a slot away from city students offends many parents. Such tales have become common at Boston Latin, which has seen a slight uptick in recent years in admission offers sent to students who took the exam as nonresidents. Founded in 1635, it is more than a year older than Harvard College and boasts five signers of the Declaration of Independence among its alumni.

“I think it’s wrong and grossly unfair,’’ said Ginny Brennan, a Latin School parent who supports Tobin’s resolution and is president of the BLS Home and School Association. “Our kids work real hard and under some extremely difficult conditions and many manage to climb through the ropes to get into Boston Latin. There’s no question if you get your kid into Boston Latin that they will be successful in life.’’

But one Latin School parent cautioned against putting the resolution into policy, believing the city should be more proactive in attracting families with talented children, saying they may buy houses and raise property values.

“They become long-term residents,’’ said Lin Sun, who moved his family from Brookline to Boston in 1997 when his oldest son was offered admission to Latin. “The idea of making it more difficult to establish residency is protectionism. It’s a bad idea.’’

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