The Grosse Pointe School Board has voted down a proposal for a mandatory, districtwide residency verification during a special meeting on Monday.
The Board listened to many residents who characterized the proposal as ridiculous, a witch hunt, an unfair attack on innocent children, a lawsuit waiting to happen and a waste of tax dollars and administrators' time.
The decision came after much argument and confusion during the nearly two-hour meeting Monday that was called by trustees Cindy Pangborn and Tom Jukubiec. The two trustees wrote the proposal that called for every Grosse Pointe Public School student to provide notarized proof of residency between Nov. 9 and Dec. 4 or face penalties.
The issue of how to enforce residency in Grosse Pointe Public School re-surfaced in July after a group, Residents for Residency, formed and demanded the district do more to keep non-residents out of Grosse Pointe Schools.
After many weeks of arguing the years-old process and convincing the board and administrators to add new aspects such as requiring tuition reimbursement from residency violators and expanding the requirements for providing residency to more students, the group still asked for tougher enforcement.
Pangborn, a supporter of the group, worked with Jakubiec to write the resolution that was released to the public Friday, but was changed Sunday to eliminate a portion that called for the removal of violators from school and school events by Jan. 18.
At the beginning of the meeting, Pangborn tried to withdraw the proposal from being voted on, saying she meant it to be discussed not voted on, but the board voted down her request. She and Jakubiec also spent time arguing whether the meeting they called was wrongly labeled special or emergency.
The about-face perplexed fellow board members and residents attending the meeting, and created tension as Pangborn and Jakubiec said their proposal was no different than district procedures already on the books -- something superintendent Tom Harwood and board members said was untrue.
Jakubiec and Pangborn said the "across the board" approach is fair, removes the presumption of guilt on certain residents, mainly renters, and protects the district and students.
Superintendent Tom Harwood said during Monday's meeting that the administration saw the proposal as too cumbersome for several reasons, but especially the provision that called for verification of all 8,500 or so students' residency in December and January, much of that time being the winter break.
Even if that could be done with the staff in place, Harwood said, there would likely be many families who do not reply, even if they are legitimate residents. Some residents attending Monday's meeting said that they would not provide the form if asked.
Even with a "95 percent return rate, which is high, we would still be investigating 400 students," Harwood said.
Residents Speak For and Against Proposal
The board exchanges were tense and hard to follow as trustees made conflicting claims and frustrated residents in the audience, 11 of whom shared their opinions on the proposal and residency enforcement with the board.
Nine of the speakers from the audience were opposed to Pangborn and Jakubiec's proposal. Some speakers had never attended a board meeting but felt so strongly about the issue they were compelled to speak up.
One Grosse Pointe native shared her story of being targeted, suspected and whispered about at Kerby Elementary when she moved back to Grosse Pointe Woods with her son about 13 years ago to live with her father,"to help him, to help ourselves." She now owns her own home.
Isabel Mason, a Woods resident, asked Pangborn to put herself in the place of students and families who are being followed to and from school during investigations into their residency.
"As I'm sitting here listening to everybody and obviously there's very strong convictions on both sides…Nobody has really talked about how the kids are affected," Mason said. "Cindy Pangborn, think about pulling out of your parking lot, or wherever you live or work…and being followed. There have been students followed….to check residency…That is completely inappropriate and uncalled for, but this is what we're doing.
"Are you willing to put your name and our school system at risk for a lawsuit?"
"Following a child home from school to see where they live…That sickens me as a mom and as a human being…While you're up there amending your paperwork for Residents for Residency or whether you're running for re-election or what…I want you to go home and think about that," Mason concluded.
Grosse Pointe Woods resident Kathy Abke urged the district to put the issue to rest and to get back to focusing on improving education for students. Abke asked the board to consider the risk of lawsuits that could result from a policy that goes against the legal mandate that a public education be provided to all children.
"I know this board has always been serious about enforcing the residency policy," Abke said. "The existing system was strengthened in August…after a loud and angry crowd demanded it be addressed. Now this loud, angry crowd wants even more."
Abke referred to a special needs student was kept out of school for almost three weeks this school year while residency was verified, something a member of Residents for Residency claimed was not true. Board members and others confirm it did happen.
"If a child is kept out of school, even one child, I think we have failed," she said. "I'm not a part of that loud angry crowd that believes the problem is widespread," she said, mentioning district figures that show about 1 percent of children have been found to be in violation and asked to leave.
"It's time to get back to the business of educating kids and I have faith you're going to do the right thing," Abke said.
Farms resident Pete Spencer also asked that the district waste no more time.
"We could go to the nth degree but the nth degree is going to take an immense amount of time and resources," he said. "If we're finding approximately 50 give or take each year and those are discovered and kept out…I think overall things are going fairly well in the district. There are good things, exciting things you guys as a board could be working on. We don't audit every tax return…We don’t put a cop on every corner…It's time to go on and get back to educating students.”
Two residents who spoke in favor, Thomas Lizza and Diana Karabetsos, are a part of the group, Residents for Residency. Lizza has said beefing up enforcement is a simple matter of right and wrong and a districtwide verification is the only fair way to protect Grosse Pointe schools from educating students who don't belong.
Karabetsos, who ran for school board in the last election, says there are better ways to enforce residency. She spoke about knowing personally of homes where students claim to live but don't.
"This is a closed district….We spend $93,000 a year paying someone to verify residency and it's not working," she told the board and audience. "I know there are people in this district who do not live in those homes. It's not a witch hunt..We only want to do what other closed districts do. I don't know what else to say…I think tonight's a sham, really," she said.
Board Trustees Weigh In and Vote No
Board President Judy Gafa, who is up for re-election as is Pangborn, addressed Karabetsos' comments and the residency proposal at the end of the meeting.
"I don't think it's going to do anything...Checking housing and rentals….I find that disturbing. When we start having citizens checking other citizens homes to make sure they live there, don't live there…when we have someone employed to do that…where are going as a community?" Gafa said.
Trustee Brendan Walsh was frustrated by Pangborn and Jakubiec's attempts to backpedal on the proposal by changing it and claiming it was nothing new.
"When they saw such a strong negative reaction to it after having dipped their toes in murky political waters… they quickly amended it and came back," Walsh said. "That's why everyone is confused…I'm moving from confused to disturbed."
Walsh said district staff and the community were wronged by having limited resources spent on legal advice for the proposal, which after being changed "really amounts to nothing."
Jakubiec said published stories about their proposal were inaccurate and misleading, but district officials said the stories, including one on Patch last week, were accurate.
In the end, the board rejected the proposal by 5-2, with Pangborn and Jakubiec dissenting, and the audience responded with applause.