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."