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MARLBOROUGH

Student resident rule may tighten

Immigrants fear being targeted

BARBARA McGANN BARBARA McGANN

Members of Marlborough's immigrant community are outraged by a measure the city's School Committee appears poised to pass. The proposal would require parents to produce three forms of proof that they live in the city before their children would be allowed to attend schools here. It has been blasted by immigrants and their advocates, who charge that it targets those in the country illegally.

School officials emphatically deny that the measure targets illegal immigrants, saying it is meant instead to root out children who live in other towns but are taking advantage of Marlborough-funded programs in sports or arts. Some supporters have also cited the city's special education programs as a draw -- the costs associated with educating a special needs child who lives elsewhere could add up to a heavy financial burden.

The new policy -- which is likely to be adopted either at the Tuesday School Committee meeting or the next session, in August -- would increase to three the number of documents parents of prospective schoolchildren would have to show. The parents would be required to produce a document from each of three categories. For the first, they would have to show a utility bill; for the second, a deed or lease agreement (with some exceptions). The third category is the controversial one. Parents would be able to choose from a list of 10 documents, ranging from a valid driver's license to a W-2 form to a bank statement -- all likely to be problematic for illegal immigrants

Nilton Lisboa, a Marlborough resident and Brazilian immigrant, said the new policy would push immigrant children to towns that don't have such strict requirements. "What's going to end up happening, even though the parents live here, they're going to have to go to Framingham or Northborough or Hudson," said Lisboa, 28, who has been in Marlborough since 1990 and graduated from high school in the city.

He said he feels the policy targets immigrants, despite what school officials say, and he doesn't buy that there are so many students from out of town in the system that it's having a negative impact on the school budget. "One thing I'm still unclear on is, why are they doing this?" said Lisboa. "Is it [so] excessive that it's affecting the school funding? I don't think that's the case."

Some school officials agree that the number of nonresident students is probably not great -- Superintendent Barbara McGann said it might be as high as 5 percent -- but they say with fiscal times so tough, watching every taxpayer dollar is crucial.

"It's not like there are vast numbers of kids that are hijacking our school system," said Michelle Bodin-Hettinger, a School Committee member. "I think the purpose of the exercise is to streamline the process."

She added the policy has "absolutely nothing" to do with targeting illegal immigrants, but she understands the fear they may have and wants to allay concerns. "I feel confident we're going to be reasonable and flexible," she said.

Mayor Nancy Stevens, chairwoman of the School Committee, could not be reached for comment.

Although the policy is still in draft form, the superintendent has released the work in progress. A section on "frequently asked questions" states, "No family will be denied access to school because of their immigration status." Indeed, School Committee members say they are forbidden by law from asking a family about their immigration status.

For the most part, the policy would affect new registrations. Once a child is registered, the parents do not have to reregister them from year to year unless the child has a week of unexcused absences -- a not-so-uncommon occurrence. There are between 500 and 1,000 such instances every year, requiring reregistration, said Bodin-Hettinger. The new policy would allow the schools to better track those children and to find out if they need specialized services, she said.

If the School Committee approves the policy Tuesday, it would go into effect for the new school year and apply to any new families that moved to the city over the summer. If the policy is not approved until August, it would only be applied to students who register after the start of school.

McGann said she initiated the proposal a few weeks ago as a way to protect taxpayers. She worked as an assistant superintendent in Boston, which has a similarly strict policy, before coming to Marlborough last fall.

She said last week that she doesn't want to burden families, but simply wants to make it difficult for students who don't live in the district to attend school here. "I'm trying to keep this as family-friendly as possible," she said.

A new position, the central registrar, which has not yet been filled, would be created to check the documentation that parents submit. There would be an appeals process if a child is rejected. The new process would also be centralized. Rather than being processed through individual schools, all registrations would go through the new central registrar, located at the District Education Center, which includes the superintendent's office.

The policy also gives notice that families can be investigated if they provide incomplete or suspicious documentation or if mail from the schools is returned.

Last week, a subcommittee debated the finer details of the policy before voting to pass it along to the full School Committee.

There was some discussion about how quickly a student would be dismissed if he or she is found not to be a resident. Subcommittee members Bodin-Hettinger and Mark Hediger both said they wanted the student to stay in class while an appeal is pending, and they both supported some kind of grace period of a few days if a child is ultimately to be dismissed.

But a third member of the subcommittee, Cosmo Valente, said that kind of leeway would take the teeth out of the policy. "We're being overly sensitive," he said. "I'm not sure we should be all that forgiving."

To consider one measure of school performance, Marlborough High School ranked 127th out of 337 schools in 10th grade English MCAS scores, and 73d of 337 schools in 10th grade MCAS math. All bordering towns outranked Marlborough in English; the city's high school was about average compared with the same communities on math.

The School Committee meets Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the District Education Center, 17 Washington St.

Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or lkocian@globe.com.

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