Plainfield Schools’ new requirements threaten to unenroll residents

I haven’t written a blog post in quite a while, but occasionally there is something I just have to sound off on. Last week I heard about one of the most disastrous school policies I can recall. This terrible policy will be implemented in the Plainfield Public Schools, and will potentially affect every K-12 student in the district. It may kick dozens of Plainfield residents out of our schools, and create a headache for many more.

First, a little bit of background information. A full 83% of the Plainfield Public School budget comes from the state, or at least it did last school year. Somewhere around 3% comes from federal funds. These figure vary from year to year, but this is typical of recent school years. That means the remaining 14% comes from local taxpayers.

State funding is so high because Plainfield is one of the state’s 31 former Abbott districts. These districts are the poorest in the state, and receive these funds as an attempt at equity in public education. To contrast, 73% of South Plainfield’s budget comes from local taxes according to a recent district presentation.

Like all public school districts, Plainfield Schools require students to live within city limits. Some districts even threaten parents with a hefty fine, or theft of services charges. To be clear, the vast majority of people attending schools in municipalities where they don’t reside do so in more affluent districts, not former Abbott districts.

You may remember former Plainfield Superintendent Steve Gallon was one of three arrested for enabling two children who lived in Perth Amboy, another former Abbott School district, to attend South Plainfield Schools. Some districts, like Washington Township, even allow pay bounties to anyone who reports an out-of-district student. This is not uncommon.

While South Plainfield does not have a bounty program, offending parents can incur a $1000 fine as their students are unenrolled. In the case of the children linked with superintendent Gallon and his two associates, the district alerted the local police in order to press charges. Yet this hardline district still only requires the same proof of residency documents that Plainfield has always required:

 – A deed, property tax statement, lease, or a notarized rental agreement

 – Any two documents or bills with name, address, and a recent date

Three documents are required. These South Plainfield requirements are in line with those suggested by the State of New Jersey. You can read the State’s full proof of residency requirements in section 6A:22-4.1 here.

So, I was horrified to learn late last week that the Plainfield Public Schools now have requirements that would shame even the Motor Vehicle Center.

All K-12 students will have to provide one of the following:

 – A deed or lease

 – Mortgage bill

 – Property tax bill

 – Notarized landlord affidavit

And, additionally, four of the following:

 – Government issued ID (with a Plainfield address, of course)

 – Current gas bill

 – Current cable bill

 – Current water bill

 – Homeowners insurance

 – Paystub from employer

 – Credit card bill

 – Current electrical bill

 – Benefit statement

 – Auto insurance

 – Bank statement

 – Cell phone bill

Yes, four of the items from that second list are required. Failure to comply – not presenting these five documents – will result in withdrawal from the school.

The Plainfield Public Schools, which surely have more students trying to attend school outside of the district than sneak in, are preparing to unenroll any of its 8,500 students who can’t produce four of the documents from that poorly constructed second list.

It’s pretty common for a resident to have no car insurance, no credit, and no utilities or cell phone in their name. That’s not a terribly unusual circumstance for residents in our city. Already that list of 12 documents is down to four documents, and these families will have to provide all four.

The remaining documents are bank statement, pay stub, benefits statement, and government issued ID showing address. No job? Out of luck. No driver’s license/state ID? Out of luck too. No bank account? Can’t come to school.

People living with family or renting a bedroom are all residents. People living on a couch are residents. So are homeless people, legally speaking. Anyone who claims to now be homeless can maintain enrollment in the Plainfield Schools, no questions asked. Perhaps with these harsh rules, the district is creating a new definition of homelessness that many students will claim to avoid the hurdles of providing all of this documentation. Others will just miss out on an education.

The Plainfield Schools risk keeping students who live in Plainfield home with their new policy.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t make people prove they live in the district. The Plainfield Public Schools have always had a burden of proof for residency. But why not three documents, as it has always been? The same three documents required by South Plainfield and other hardline districts where many more students are trying to sneak into. Remember Washington Township, the district with the bounties? They only require two documents.

And if hypothetical students sneaking into Plainfield schools is such a big issue locally, I think we are due for a much larger discussion about all of the developers set to build in Plainfield and increase our student population while paying no taxes to the schools. That’s a potential real crisis.

With this policy, the Plainfield Schools will end up sending actual residents home to chase suspected non-residents. For thousands more in Plainfield’s elementary, middle, and high schools, this will represent a huge inconvenience, and a barrier to education.

I’m not sure where this idea came from, but I ask that the Plainfield Board of Education reconsider this policy.

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