Grosse Pointe School Board, District Field Complaints, Concerns Over Residency Enforcement

Sensitive topic for the Grosse Pointe community comes to a head—again—at Monday's board meeting.

The thorny issue of residency enforcement in Grosse Pointe Public Schools stirred debate, anger and impassioned pleas at the school board meeting Monday night.

The arguments—from pleadings to be fair and not humiliate families who rightfully belong in the schools to threats of not re-electing board members and demands that residency violators be punished criminally—illustrate a divide that's playing out across the community. It's a touchy topic as residents and school officials figure out how to handle the removal of students who don't legally reside in the Pointes and balancing that with fairness and an approach that isn't discriminatory.

It's playing out in a time of unsettling change in the Pointes—in demographics, property values and the looming possibility of state legislation that will require all Michigan schools open their borders.

A group called Residents for Residency have become regulars at school board meetings and in August it convinced the district to create an affidavit system for residency verification, to open a hotline for tips on residency violators and to implement a fine system that requires violators to reimburse the district tuition for non-resident students. All of it's been done, but the affidavit portion has been only partially implemented as the district tries to figure out how to take on a process that could overwhelm staff or unfairly target students.

The affidavit implementation has angered members of Residents for Residency, who accused the board and district of intentionally keeping illegal students in order to increase enrollment and in turn per pupil funding. 

A handful of people at the meeting spoke on the other side of the issue, urging careful consideration of what the policy means for the community, families and human relations.

All seemed to agree that they want what's best for the students and the schools and  the community overall, but they could not agree on the best way to carry out a residency verification program.

"It's a complicated matter. We have a different community today than we had five, 10 years ago," Superintendent Dr. Thomas Harwood told the audience after everyone had spoken, some shouting, some clearly showing their anger.

"We have to respect the residents of this community. ... We also have to understand when we've overstepped our bounds," said Harwood, alluding to at least one student who was wrongly kept out of school for three weeks.

Harwood explained that currently the plan is to try a pilot program that will send affidavits to suspected nonresidents in December and give them six-seven weeks to confirm their residency. In addition, the district tip line has resulted in six reports, only one confirmed as a violator, and that student was leaving the district anyway. Harwood said Residents for Residency's demand in August, just before school started, to institute a districtwide residency confirmation affidavit was not doable and could lead to larger problems.

"What do we do when Johnny shows up to the first day of school with his new shoes and new backpack? Send him to the office?" 

A handful of residents were moved to speak Monday after hearing the story of an autistic student who was wrongly kept out of school for three weeks as district officials investigated his aunt and guardian who lives in the Park. They urged the district to use a process that is fair and has safeguards.

Sarah Hinkle, a lifelong Grosse Pointer who attended the Academy and graduated from Grosse Pointe South High School, now lives in the Park and is an advocate for special education students. Hinkle asked everyone to see both sides.

"I want to say to the group Residents for Residency. … I believe in my heart that your goal is to protect the integrity of our schools. … I, however, ask that we come up with a residency guideline that is more manageable.

She urged the district to reconsider a component of the affidavit system that requires landlords to verify residency in order to avoid repeats of the Park woman whose nephew was kept out of school. Not all landlords are accessible or responsive, she said.

"The plan needs to take into account that not every situation is the same… A backup plan is needed," she said. "To miss three weeks of school is unthinkable. … Even worse an (autistic) child was kept out.

"We must make a change for the children, and the process must be better," she said, getting applause form the audience.

Tija Spitsberg, a Park resident, took exception to the hotline to report violators.

"You seem to take a certain amount of pride in hotline. … To report people who don't seem to belong here," said Spitsberg, a Latvian immigrant who left her country when communists took over. "How do they justify humiliating families … insulting their dignity. … Morally what are the costs of this unjust behavior."

Jeanne Lizza, a resident of Grosse Pointe Woods and a member of Residents for Residency, shared her unhappiness with the board for not implementing a system that verified residency for all 8,300 plus students in the district.

"The kids know who don't belong here," she told the board. "You need to address the needs of most of the community. People would not mind one more piece of paper to bring in" at enrollment time each year, she said.

She suggested hiring a company that could do the work if it's too labor-intensive for district staff.

School board members were exasperated also, making it clear that even they are confused about exactly what's going on with the residency enforcement process.

Brendan Walsh responded to accusation of intentionally keeping nonresidents in school.

"That we'd let illegal students drive revenue is hogwash," he said. 

He said the district should say exactly what it wants to do and have the board vote on a clear plan, so that all can understand "where the hell we are."

"If our decision is to adopt an affidavit that you have to sign or you can't attend school, then do that," he said. "If the administration is not comfortable with that, then bring it to the board and we'll vote on it."

He pointed out the demands being made are an "easy thing to say ... until a special needs student is left out of school for three weeks."

And he added to those threatening to keep out of office opponents of Residents for Residency, "You don't want to vote for me, I don't care."

David Weiner, a Grosse Pointe Park resident who addressed the board, sees the residency policy as a harassment of blue-collar workers by an affluent residents.

Weiner warned that "harsh treatment of the vulnerable" might lead to an unintended consequence of forcing schools to take all students. 

Board member Lois Valente asked everyone to remember the children affected by the policy, however it looks when all is said and done.

"We know there is a potential problem," she said. "But how do we address that problem in a way that is nondiscriminatory? You can't punish the kids because the parents aren't doing what's right. ... Some people are going to be pleased. Some are not going to be pleased. I don't want to have our community coming here month after month yelling and screaming."

Harwood also responded to comments about the district watering down the policy and breaking promises.

"At our heart and our belief … we are trying to make decisions that are in the best interest of the students. ... I've had people in my office in tears because of landlord can't be reached. … I think the children are the victims of this process. Somehow we need to come together collectively. We will work on the process and the logistics of doing it. You have to understand the impact."

Sierra Donavon, who said she grew up riding her bike from Detroit into Grosse Pointe and dreaming of one day owning a home here, said a tough stance on violator is needed. Now a homeowner in the Farms after first moving to the Park ten years ago, she spoke passionately.

"I'd like to speak plain English, and I speak from the heart," she said. "I have seen a decline. … When we allow and tolerate what should not be, it tends to bring the values and standards down. I'm not for open borders. I have not lived in certain communities since the 80s. I chose to live here in the Pointes for this reason."

Katie September 26, 2012 at 02:16 PM
Bradley, thanks for standing up for what is right and doing good work. :)
GP For Life September 26, 2012 at 02:20 PM
I love hearing people talk about embracing change, just as your embracing the change of having sign an affadavit. I don't have a problem with people enrolling their nieces, nephews, and grandchildren in the school system if they're residents. They pay the same taxes regardless, so why not? I like the idea of letting school system employees enroll their children, it just increases their stake in the system. Let's be clear here: These aren't the people we're talking about. This isn't about racism or whatever liberal-arts-school-BS you have rattling around in your mind. It's just a simple matter of what's right. It's not right that the Detroit Public School System is about as organized and effective as a prison riot, but they made their own bed. We already subsidize that system of failure and idiocy too much, we don't need to pick up their slack now. Everyone keeps saying "the community has changed". Frankly, I find that offsensive and racist. The community is still the excellent community that it has always been. Basically, the residency issue is a simple one. Enforce the rules because they're the rules. If you don't superimpose all your white guilt onto things the issue becomes clear.
Bradley Coopersmith September 26, 2012 at 02:39 PM
GpGr67, Why is this a push by traditional Pointers? Also, why do we HAVE to embrace change? It seems like a big part of Grosse Pointe's appeal is that it is a historic community with well kept homes and organizations that date back several decades. I am not opposed to change unless its for the worse. The quality of our schools is dropping. Test scores are dropping. Kids and seniors have been mugged at gunpoint. Burglaries and car thefts are prominent. But I embrace change and diversity! Forget it. Pay to play or get out of the way. The school is going after everyone regardless of race. Renters are easy targets because unlike property owners, they are more difficult to verify so it only makes sense to start there.
Brian Vosburg September 26, 2012 at 03:53 PM
Well said GpGr67. I wish you would have used your real name. As for the folks that say 6-7 weeks is unreasonable to show residency, I'm sure glad that you weren't my parent and you're not my boss. Have you ever thought that people have other things going on in their life and stopping everything to dig out and copy some documents one rarely looks at might not be the fastest thing to do? And life does happen sometimes - kids stay with aunts and grandparents and (gasp!) they don't always involve an attorney. And sometimes documents have errors that you never noticed before. Your lives may be perfect like on Leave it to Beaver, but thankfully it sounds like the school board and staff are trying to deal with the real world.
William September 26, 2012 at 06:57 PM
GpGr67, you have it wrong. If you are legit, you should have nothing to hide in providing residency proof, plain and simple. The efforts are not overkill, but reflect what it takes in order for action to commence. Play by the rules. Why do some of you insist on saying the issue is otherwise?
Bradley Coopersmith September 26, 2012 at 07:04 PM
Lynn, The autistic student is a very clear example, this person was not listed on the lease. That is as simple as it comes. In addition, the guardianship paper work was not correct so she had no basis at all for that child being in GP schools. She got it corrected and now the child is in the right school. The system worked. Truth be told, that scenario smelled quite fishy. If i were a betting man, I'd wager her sibling put the child with her to get access to our premium school system. the one we are working so hard to make sure stays that way. Let's just call it what is, a hidden agenda, because the Freepress got a hold of it and made it read: Black autistic student denied access to GP schools. When it actual should read, women attempts to register a child that is not hers and was not listed on her lease. GP Schools deny entry. How come whenever someone says we need to embrace diversity it usually means someone else has to foot the bill or an area gets worse? If a the storyread "waive of new neighbors comes to the pointes. Homes kept impeccably and children driving school test score averages up. Property values soar." I don't think anyone would complain. But because the opposite is occurring people are getting mad. I get it. Do you?
Lisa C. September 26, 2012 at 07:05 PM
You would think by these comments that this is a new issue. This is 5 years in the making! The school board was too scared to be proactive and now they are so reactive they can't get it right either. There was plenty of time to get a committee of parents, teachers, administrators, lawyers, landlords and God knows who else to sit down and work something -- (anything at this point) -out. George - I think its the school board who should be embarrassed. Lynn Jacobs- Yes THANK-YOU JUDY GAFA for advocating against against SOC.--but why bother if you choose not to enforce residency. (Ms. Gafa's previous platform) What's the point? As for the marketing program the GPPSS has been working on - it's my guess they are getting ready for mandatory SOC anyway.
Bob Frapples September 26, 2012 at 09:24 PM
Just because of the 8000+ students only about 100 are found to be ineligable does not mean that there aren't another 500 or more that have not been found. The 100 are simply the ones that were caught.
Kathy Abke September 26, 2012 at 10:21 PM
I couldn't agree more, Lynn.
Brendan Walsh September 26, 2012 at 10:44 PM
Stephanie, You write, "There is no gray area... If you actually live in the district, then prove it." By your standard, contrasted with Michigan state laws defining school district residency, there is PLENTY of gray area. Here is a state summary: http://www.michigan.gov/documents/residency_122548_7.pdf The excerpt of note: "“District of residence” means the district in which a student’s custodial parent or parents or legal guardian resides [MCL 388.1603]. If a student’s parent or legal guardian reside in different districts, either district may enroll the student as a resident, regardless of which parent or legal guardian has custody [MCL 380.1148a]." Thus a student could live in Detoit or St. Clair Shores (or elsewhere) but so long as any single parent or guardian resides in GPPSS boundaries, they are legally eligible to enroll. So in certain respects, the law IS without gray, but the conventional interpretation of state law typically misses this point altogether. Brendan Walsh
Lisa C. September 27, 2012 at 03:07 AM
need to amend my comment: THANK-YOU JUDY GAFA for advocating against against SOC.--but why bother if the rest of the school board chooses not to enforce residency. What's the point?
Brendan Walsh September 27, 2012 at 11:37 AM
Lisa Carmer, Your charge that the district has not been proactive is made with no reference to facts that have long been available to everyone on the district's website. the charge, in fact, ignores data supporting the opposite. http://gpschools.schoolwires.net/page/1042 Over 330 in eligible students have been expelled in the last 7 years. Unless you are under the impression they turned themselves in, then how else would they have been discovered if not for proactive investigations. And no, it's not on account of the horrid "tip line," which has received just over 50 "tips" in the same time. This stands in stark contrast to the absence of factual data supporting that Ineligible enrollment is as rampant as Residency for Residency claims. The charge that the district has not been proactive, or that we are willfully enrolling illegal students, is as baseless as the charge that all residency advocates are racists. Brendan Walsh
George R. McMullen Jr. September 27, 2012 at 11:59 AM
A minor point to an above posting by "Katie", that one of my comments ended in a preposition. I freely admit that I was a poor student most of my life, and I have made many grammatical errors over the years and will most likely continue in “killing the Kings English” in the future. My goal is to present my opinion on school issues to help and assist, that’s what I’m here for.
Mark September 27, 2012 at 12:42 PM
Bradley your comments are spot on good sir. I'm so sick of this argument that GP isn't willing to accept the changing demographic of the country. If that means poorer schools, sliding property values and general decay of our community then yes I'm unwilling to accept that. I love the wave of new renters who are college students because of programs like GPHF but what I do no appreciate are waves of renters who are on month to month leases and care little or less about keeping the community clean and safe. And Lynn how many students must fraudulently enter our school system for it to be not okay anymore? You have to draw a line somewhere and if you find 50 of them then I think it is more than justified to aggressively eliminate the problem.
GP For Life September 27, 2012 at 01:56 PM
George, please understand that ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall not put.
Kathy Abke September 27, 2012 at 05:26 PM
Excellent point, Kevin!
Katie September 27, 2012 at 06:03 PM
George, my apologies. My comment was not meant to be mean-spirited. I make (plenty of) mistakes – this being one of them. Maybe I took umbrage that you marginalized “Group 2”. They may be seriously lacking in decorum, but last I checked it’s a free country (for now, God help us). If it wasn’t for rowdy persons fighting for what they believe in, this country wouldn’t exist. I personally do not indiscriminately support authority without independent thought. Just because the people in charge are in charge doesn’t mean they are leaders (and as a leader you have to suck it up and take the good with the bad and the ugly). I admire your interest to be involved and your reply to my comment. Thank you for reminding me to check myself - that while we can agree to disagree it’s always right to be kind… George, I hope you have a great day. Katie
Chris K September 27, 2012 at 07:25 PM
Katie: Congratulations on being able to say you are sorry. You have made my day.
Katie September 27, 2012 at 07:49 PM
Thanks Chris K. It was George who made my day with his classy response to my earlier crappy comment. He gave me a gift.
Bradley Coopersmith September 27, 2012 at 09:39 PM
Sarah, If I am wrong then i am wrong. I'll take you at your word that you were the advocate. If so, then you have first hand knowledge and I thank you for clarifying the situation. I hope you can see my viewpoint given how it was reported in the Freepress and the facts that were left out. I have grown quite suspicious of our news due to the fact that they constantly omit facts in order to push their own agenda (e.g., not letting people know the race of an attacker even though it would help the community). I agree no one wants the children to suffer. But the fact that the child was enrolled last year does not prove that he was supposed to be there. And even if the guardianship is valid, it is negated by no proof of residency because the landlord did not enforce his lease. Ultimately, the landlord seems to be the one that caused all this trouble for the family and the school district. I agree with the policy of punishing lazy landlords who think they hit paydirt because they have rental in GP and can lease them out, collect higher rents, and not be held accountable. Thanks again Sarah.
Sarah September 28, 2012 at 12:39 AM
Bradley, I have been watching all the comments and at this time I am feeling like I should probably set the record straight as I believe you do not have all the details regarding the autistic child that was kept out of school. I was the advocate that helped this family and was able to review the the complete case. Lets be clear this was not a new student he and the girl went to GP schools last year, using the SAME address and SAME guardianship papers. Nothing had changed other then because the family went month to month they needed the affidavit signed and the landlord refused. His claims that he didnt sign it because he was not on the lease is ridiculous he has known for almost 2 years that he lives there.as for the guardianship papers yes there was a clerical error on the document that the clerk changed on the original instead of drafting a new one. I even spoke to wayne coubty probate court. Now I am not sure why GP chose to nit pick these papers this year when they were perfectly fine last year is strange. The school administration made a mistake they should have allowed these children to go to school while they investigated especially since these were returning students. 3 weeks of missed school is unacceptable. As I said at the board meeting I understand the frustration that the group Residents for Residency feels I just believe we can accomplish what they are asking fior without sacrificing the education of our children.
Sarah September 28, 2012 at 11:07 AM
Bradley, thank you for your response. I think one of my largest concerns is that people will have to rely on landlords to sign something. I did email a GP Park city council member to see if there is anything we can do to make landlords accountable. If they are held accountable for this then I have no problem with the mandated affidavit. I do think we can all work together to make this work. Thank you for your commitment to our community your passion to keep GP safe and kept to high standards is why most of us live here.
Chris K September 28, 2012 at 12:33 PM
Sara: In response to the question you pose in your comment that is copied below: Assuming the matter unfolded as you describe in your post, The school board should conduct a complete investigation about why the school district conduct itself in the manner it did and report to the public its findings. "Now I am not sure why GP chose to nit pick these papers this year when they were perfectly fine last year is strange. The school administration made a mistake they should have allowed these children to go to school while they investigated especially since these were returning students. 3 weeks of missed school is unacceptable. As I said at the board meeting I understand the frustration that the group Residents for Residency feels I just believe we can accomplish what they are asking fior without sacrificing the education of our children."
Stephanie September 28, 2012 at 12:35 PM
"Brendan, what I am getting at is the fact that there are students that have "relatives" that live in the district and those students don't actually live with these relatives and/or these relatives are not the legal guardians. If a person is a legal guardian then simply be prepared to show proof upon registering your student for school. Also, this is not an issue that only traditional pointers are bringing to the forefront. I have only lived here for two years. I moved here for very specific reasons and I have a real vested interest in this community. The qualities of our schools and of our community that we all enjoy and take pride in are the things that will eventually erode if they are not protected. When people say there are too many requirements and they need more time to come up with documents, it’s because they don’t have them. Or because they need time to figure out a way to manipulate the system and skirt around the rules. Also, who cares what color a person is....that is not what this is about. It is so exhausting when people want to start talking about what color everyone is. You meet the requirements or you don’t. If you want to be a part of our community and go to our schools, fabulous! Just be darn tootin’ that you are not committing fraud, and then maybe we can all just get along.
GP For Life September 28, 2012 at 12:53 PM
Can we please stop referring to the student as the "autistic student"? The student will struggle to not let the disease defiine their entire life, we could take a little time and not define the student. It is irrelevant to the discussion. By the way, this is coming from a guy who refuses to stop using "retarded" when referring to mentally handicapped people. I am not exactly PC.
William September 28, 2012 at 01:17 PM
Well said Stephanie!
Brendan Walsh September 28, 2012 at 01:28 PM
Stephanie, Every student has long been required to prove eligibility to enroll. http://gpschools.schoolwires.net/cms/lib05/MI01000971/Centricity/domain/161/enrollment%20forms/2012/updated%20residency%20requirements%208.27.12.pdf The Residents for Residency are asking that a signed affidavit, on top of the proof of eligibility we have long required, ALSO be required not just of the parent/legal guardian, but of the landlords. And we are already seeing some landlords unwilling to do this. This raises a very significant question as to the legality of expelling students or prohibiting the right to a free and public education on the basis of their landlord's unwillingness to sign an affidavit. And if you don't think we're already in the ACLU's sites, you'd be mistaken. We just faced a Civil Rights lawsuit last year. On top of this, we don't even need the affidavit to pursue fines or encourage legal action for someone who has committed fraud. So we'd be incurring further legal risk, potentially harming students who are victims of landlords' right to not sign, for what gain? Despite the public charges that the district is not being proactive or willfully looking the other way, we are proactive and have been for years. These proposals massively increase legal risk for no gain and quite possibly significant harm. That is the issue right now and precisely why we need diligence and rationality informing our decisions, not fear, threats and emotion. Brendan
Kathy Abke September 28, 2012 at 11:50 PM
I am grateful for the diligence & rationality the Board of Ed demonstrates in making decisions, Mr. Walsh. If our school board made decision based on fear, threat and emotions, we'd be in a whole heap of trouble.
George R. McMullen Jr. September 29, 2012 at 12:28 PM
Katie no offense taken, my writing and grammar has always been a subject of criticism from many sources so I have come to expect it. I hope my point is made and as to some citizens behavior at the school board meeting we agree to disagree.
William Broman October 01, 2012 at 08:04 PM
Last Friday I finished watching the September Board meeting, and I was stunned by that the concerns of the community have warranted little visible action on behalf of the board. Mr. Walsh makes a important point when he says, "These proposals massively increase legal risk for no gain and quite possibly significant harm." That said, when there are individuals up for reelection who are not being overly proactive given the platforms they ran on in the past, it should raise a concern in the community. Although I have not been elected to the Board yet, I have proposals that I would make on day 1. Yes thats right, if the issue of residency hasn't been taken care of by January of 2013, I will make policy proposals on day 1. You can find those proposals on my website. If you elect me, you will have someone on the Board who doesn't just take a position on an issue, he takes action on that issue as well. I look forward to seeing everyone on October 9th!


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something