YESTERDAY: Kids crossing border for school scrutinized
Horne seeks Ajo inquiry; some districts crack down
LUKEVILLE, AZ (Mar. 7, 2004) – Just before dawn, a steady line of cars passes through this remote outpost on the U.S.-Mexico border, pausing at a bus stop to drop off children bundled in heavy coats to protect against the chilling rain.
It is 6:20 a.m. in Lukeville, a tiny town on the north side of the border. The town itself is little more than a strip mall with a gas station, an RV park and a general store, all clustered within sight of the international line.
In a community this small, there are few secrets. Nearly everyone knows the kids are coming across from Sonoyta, Mexico, to go to school in the United States. Lukeville’s official population is 65, but according to Ajo Unified School District records, 97 students board the buses here.
“The school district is looking the other way out of convenience because they get (an allotment) from the state,” said Grant Peterson, 54, a resident of Ajo, a town some 40 miles north where the children are bused to school. “I hate to see kids deprived of an education, but I also hate that it’s on taxpayers’ backs. Their parents aren’t paying property taxes, goddarnit.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said Friday that he plans to ask Attorney General Terry Goddard to investigate how students who cross the border are allowed to attend school in Ajo. The estimated annual cost to the state, at roughly $4,500 to $5,000 per child, is about $500,000, including transportation.
“These students should be educated, but they should be educated in Mexican schools because they live in Mexico,” Horne said.
Ajo Unified School District Superintendent Robert Dooley did not dispute that the students are costing Arizona taxpayers. But, he said, “I could not exclude those kids even if I wanted to. My moral and legal obligation is to educate every child that comes to my door and meets the residency requirement.”
Educators said the problem affects all school districts along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Estimating the number of students who cross the Arizona-Sonora line each day for school is impossible, officials say, because some parents provide fraudulent documents to establish residency or find a relative on the U.S. side to assume legal guardianship of a child.
So far this year, investigations have turned up roughly 100 students in Yuma and Nogales classrooms who were falsely claiming residency.
“There is no real way to know for certain how widespread the problem is,” said Kelt Cooper, superintendent of the Nogales Unified School District.
“I’m sure we have kids who cross the line every day,” Cooper said. “On the border, you’re always going to have that.”
When it comes to checking students’ residency, school district officials are “kind of between a rock and a hard place,” said Scott Little, chief deputy superintendent of Pima County schools.
Children are required to prove that they reside within school district boundaries to attend schools there, but since a Supreme Court decision in 1982, officials have been prohibited from asking their citizenship.
The county is responsible for providing transportation from Lukeville, which has no school, to Ajo. So the duty of checking students’ documents falls to Little, who said he requires documentation, such as a legal guardian’s voter registration or rental receipts, before students are allowed to board the bus.
“Trust me, those people don’t like me because I am out there . . . enforcing the requirements,” he said. “Ultimately, we aren’t empowered to do more than we’re doing.”
The students are not crossing the border illegally, Little stressed. At the very least, each student has some sort of legal documentation, such as a visa, that allows him or her to pass through the U.S. port of entry each morning.
U.S. immigration officials at the Lukeville port said most of the students were born in the United States and have citizenship, even though their parents are from Mexico.
Horne said new legislation may be necessary to keep students from Mexico off Arizona school rosters. He plans to review the results of any investigation by the attorney general before making any decisions.
“If they’re using guardianships that are not real, there could be a scam going on,” Horne said.
‘A better career’
Anna Esparza, a shy seventh-grader who wears wire-rim glasses, was among about two-dozen upper-grade students dropped off Tuesday at the port of entry by a school bus. The students made their way south of the border, where parents and friends waited to pick them up and then head south into Sonoyta, Mexico.
As Anna waited for her father, the 13-year-old Phoenix native said that although she lives with her family in Sonoyta, her parents wanted her to attend school in the United States “because I was born over there and they want me to have a better career.”
Her name was on a list of honor roll students printed in the local paper. She hopes to become a dolphin trainer or maybe a teacher.
Dooley, the Ajo superintendent, said three of the five top students last year rode the border bus. They are all university-bound, he added.
“They are going to be international students,” he said. “They are going to be contributing no matter where they live.”
Even critics, like Peterson, who object to paying for the education of children who live in Mexico, had only praise for thechildren who cross.
“I like this community and I like these kids,” he said. “We have really wonderful kids coming over. But I’m worried we’re going to end up just like California, paying out and paying out and paying out.”
Districts crack down
Some districts are taking extra steps to ensure that students live within district boundaries.
Yuma Union High School District board members invested in a full-time attendance monitor, at a cost of about $33,000, including benefits, to stand at the San Luis border each morning, jotting down the names of students who cross. So far this school year, 40 to 50 students who claimed to live in the United States have been turned away.
Gerrick Monroe, assistant superintendent for the district, said School Board officials offer Mexican students the opportunity to pay tuition. For $5,300 a year, roughly the cost to the local, state and federal governments, students from San Luis are welcome to attend school, Monroe said.
This year, the families of nine students decided to pay the tuition, he said. But “no one this year that we have caught has come back and said, ‘We want to stay at your high school. Here’s the money.’ ”
In a crackdown during the 1999-2000 school year, Nogales school officials found about 100 children who lived in Mexico on attendance rolls.
Fraud was rampant, Cooper said. About 30 students all claimed to live in the same house. Others had submitted rental receipts for lots that were undeveloped.
Now, the school district checks enrollment rosters against a database to see if students are providing fraudulent information about their home addresses.
So far this year, the Nogales Unified School District has turned away about 50 students after discovering they lived south of the border.
“I think anyone who facilitates picking up kids (from Mexico) knowingly should be prosecuted for defrauding taxpayers,” Cooper said. “At the local level, at the state level, everyone in one way or another subsidizes this illegal activity.”
Mar. 7, 2004 by Susan Carroll for the Arizona Republic – Nogales Bureau
TODAY: District Under Fire for Enrolling Students from Mexico
AJO, Ariz. (May 04, 2010) – The state Department of Education is calling on a southern Arizona school district to return nearly $1.2 million of state funding on grounds that the district illegally provided free education to Mexican students not living in Arizona during three recent school years.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne says state auditors found that the students involved claimed to live in Arizona but actually reside in Mexico and crossed the border daily to attend school in the Ajo Unified School District. (SEE HERE: The Audit by the Arizona Department of Education)
A Pima County school bus was documented on video picking up children at a gas station and bringing them to an Ajo public school.
Horne, who is running for Arizona Attorney General, says that the issue is residency, not citizenship or documentation.
Ajo Superintendent Robert Dooley says the district relied on documentation provided by Pima County and that district officials have no desire to break the law. He says he anticipates state and the district will try to negotiate an agreement.
Source: Fox News – Phoenix
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