By Michael Jacobs
michaeljacobs@reporternewspapers.net

More than 100 students at public schools in Sandy Springs could find themselves no longer enrolled when classes resume Jan. 6 because their parents have failed to fill out a one-page form.

Those children could start the second semester by spending all day in a school library or gym, safe and supervised but separated from their classmates and unable to participate fully in learning, until their parents comply with Fulton County Schools’ attendance policy.

The situation reveals the tension between the schools’ mission to educate children and their responsibility to ensure they spend taxpayer money wisely.

School systems routinely require families to prove their residency when they first register children at a school, but the Fulton Board of Education last year instituted a policy requiring parents to submit an affidavit of residence each year, even when a child is at the same school as the year before.

Parents do not have to provide supporting documentation — a lease or mortgage, a utility bill, a bank statement, etc. — year after year. Once they prove residency the first year, they merely have to sign a statement each year swearing they maintain that home. The statement must be notarized, but every Fulton school has at least one notary on staff and provides free notarization for the affidavits.

“We’re in a county where we’re bursting at the seams with students. We need to make sure every student is lawfully residing in Fulton County,” said Susan Hale, a school system spokeswoman. “It’s not fair to the taxpayers if they’re paying to educate students from other counties.”

The system spends about $9,500 per student, and while some of that comes from the state, county taxes cover about $6,400.

“We’re trying to make sure we educate every child who lives in our district but not the others,” said Board of Education President Julia Bernath, who lives in and represents part of Sandy Springs. “We’re trying to be good stewards for taxpayer dollars.”

But the parents of hundreds of Sandy Springs children didn’t submit the required affidavit when school started in August. Despite efforts to spread the word, some parents may not have understood that the affidavit was an annual requirement. Others decided not to go through the hassle of waiting in line for the notary or didn’t want to make a legally binding statement about their residency.

“It’s very hard to collect those every year from every child at school,” said Christine Young, the principal at Spalding Drive Charter Elementary School. “Our parents at my particular school don’t like standing in line.”

Young raised the issue of the pending forced withdrawal of dozens of her students during Bernath’s community meeting at Spalding Drive on Dec. 12. At that time, 57 of the 642 children at the school did not have affidavits on file; by Dec. 18, the number missing was down to 35, 5.4 percent of the student body.

“I can’t even tell you the number of man-hours spent” pursuing the affidavits, Young said in an interview.

Among Sandy Springs’ 10 public schools, Spalding Drive had the second-worst problem with missing affidavits when the first semester came to an end Dec. 19. Sandy Springs Middle School had 46 of 754 students, or 6.1 percent, without the affidavits as of Dec. 18.

Three schools had 100 percent compliance: Heards Ferry Elementary, High Point Elementary and Riverwood International Charter High.

First-year High Point Principal Cathi Barlow said about a dozen affidavits were missing to start the year, but she had good staff members who stayed on top of the problem and got the statements fairly quickly.

Bernath said the board created the policy because it is serious about the problem of students from out of the district, though “the chances are good that a significant number (without affidavits) are legal residents of Fulton.” She said it falls on the principals to enforce the policy, but because they are busy running their schools, the affidavits can slide.

Bernath didn’t know why it took half the school year for the district to withdraw students, although she doesn’t expect to see such a delay in future years.