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Reported Increase in School District Housing Investigations

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By Claire Walla

Sometimes, Janet Verneuille will get a lead.

“It could be from a parent, a landlord or a community member,” the Sag Harbor School District’s Financial Manager ambiguously explained.

And when she does, she’ll start to investigate.

Should Verneuille and her team of Pierson administrators actually find something solidly indicating that a student enrolled in the Sag Harbor School District is using an address that is not the same as his or her primary residence, she’ll hire a private investigator. Because before a school administrator can ask a child to leave the district, he or she needs proof.

In the past, private investigators have been hired by the district on a part-time basis to track students, often on their way home after school. These detectives will monitor whether or not students consistently leave and return to the address indicated on their enrollment forms.

“Legally, we have to do this,” Verneuille rationalized. “It’s legal, it’s ethical… it’s financially [prudent],” she added, elaborating that only those families who pay school taxes in the district should be able to take advantage of the school’s resources at no extra cost. “It’s the right thing to do, to hold people accountable.”

Most recently, her veritable part-time investigative work has focused on an alleged multi-family house somewhere in the Sag Harbor School District. According to her source — which she would only refer to as “a member of the community” — there is a house somewhere in Sag Harbor that is being rented by more than two families with children in the Sag Harbor School District.

What is being disputed is not necessarily the fact that this is a multi-family rental; the issue at hand — should this story hold its weight — is that, as Verneuille was told, the families renting the house each use a different house as their primary residence. In other words, they don’t live in Sag Harbor.

Verneuille said this particular investigation is still in the preliminary stages. With the help of the district’s Director of Technology Scott Fisher, Verneuille is pouring over data to help build a case. She would not comment on whether or not this specific incident is currently being pursued by a private investigator, but the case is still active.

But the most interesting aspect of this issue is not that there is an active investigation going on within the school district, Verneuille continued. This happens all the time; it even happens outside this school district. Without getting into specifics, she added, “I know at least three or four other districts [on the East End] that do it.”

According to Verneuille, what makes this issue interesting is the high volume of people pushing the limits of the law just to break into the Sag Harbor School District. There are currently eight active cases related to allegations of family’s using forged addresses to stay within the school district, and several others that have already been addressed this year. Though she didn’t have the exact figure, Verneuille estimated this is already about double the amount of investigations the district pursued last year.

“I definitely think it’s a compliment,” she said. “We have great programs, our test results are good and our class sizes are small. [This issue] is really a reflection on the quality of the school district.”

Verneuille said she regularly gets several calls a week from families wondering whether or not their houses resides within the school district.

“I had two just last week,” she noted.

While Verneuille would not disclose how many students have actually left the district in the wake of accusations that their families did not in fact live in the district, she did confirm that more than one family has already had to leave since the start of this school year.

Verneuille added that families are not necessarily automatically forced to leave the district. Although, should a family decide to stay in the district after having been found to be falsely enrolled as a district resident, the family would be required to pay tuition, which costs about $24,000 per child. Verneuille said at least two families so far this year have opted to start paying tuition when it was discovered their home address was not zoned for Sag Harbor.

“The good news is sometimes we get tuition that we would have missed otherwise,” she said with a smile.

While Verneuille reiterated that housing investigations are nothing new, she did admit: “I’ve never had this one before.”

Most often, these types of cases come in the way of families that have used false addresses, friends’ addresses and business addresses — she’s never had to deal with a multi-family rental.

As for the current allegations, she said “nothing has been substantiated” and “it could just be a rumor.”

However, Verneuille added that the school is still on the case.