By Michael Hill
Woodland Park has made it clear: this welcome mat is not for everyone.
“Anyone wishing to be heard on this ordinance,” said Woodland Park Mayor Keith Kazmark.
The ordinance at hand was about giving the school board the authority to penalize parents or guardians of ineligible school enrollees or ‘border or district hoppers’ with a $2,000 fine on top of thousands of dollars in restitution.
A united front with a unanimous vote that follows in the footsteps of other New Jersey towns.
Woodland Park’s new ordinance is meant to have a chilling effect beyond the family that breaks the residency rules, by taking aim and punishing those who would aid and abet.
“And there’s also up to a $2,000 fine for anybody who lends their address or domicile where the student is not actually living, but that address is used to register the student in the school district,” said Kazmark. “We’re sending a message not to do this here.”
The mayor says it costs more than $20,000 a year to educate one high school student here and more than $16,000 for elementary school.
He says last year, Woodland Park removed 19 non-resident students from its schools.
“It’s very high number,” Kazmark said.
“We need to ensure that we’re educating the children who belong to be here,” said Woodland Park Superintendent Michelle Pillari.
Pillari helped the council draft the new law. When asked if these situations are tough, Pillari said, “It is. It’s very, very difficult because children form relationships with other children. They have relationships with the teachers and you don’t want to see them go, but at the end of the day they don’t have a choice and they’re there because of decisions that the adults have made.”
Stealing education – as some call it – is a big deal. So some New Jersey school boards require residency affidavits for registration. Others – like Millburn – this year are requiring everyone to prove they live in the district. Some districts offer rewards for tips. Some get private investigator Jimmie Mesis of Freehold to audit the whole district using his databases.
“What I’m looking for is what address appears to be the most used address by that parent and that usually tells me where the parent lives,” said Mesis, Co-Owner of verifyresidence.com.
Woodland Park has assigned a police officer to handle its school residency investigations that can include hours of watching and documenting where children sleep at night.
“This is all about creating deterrents for people to do this. Quite frankly, the taxpayers of Woodland Park only need to pay for the students that we’re required to educate who live in our town,” said Kazmark.
A theme found in countless coveted districts where outside parents risk embarrassment and more for a shot at a ‘better’ education.