All Beverly Hills students soon may be required to prove their residency

One student enrolled in Beverly Hills High School this year using a virtual address obtained on the Web. Other Beverly Hills students have falsely claimed to live with grandparents or cousins who reside in the city. Unethical owners of Beverly Hills properties have even sold mailing addresses to out-of-area students.

The use of fraudulent addresses to enroll in the city’s acclaimed schools is an age-old problem, according to officials with the Beverly Hills Unified School District who recounted these examples.

But such deceptions soon may be harder to carry out under a proposed plan to recertify every family in the 4,900-student district and expel those who have been lying about where they live.

The district already has a full-time employee who investigates cases of questionable residency, and about 150 students annually are asked to leave. But there may be hundreds more students using fake addresses to attend school illegally, officials said.

New families that register to attend the city’s schools are required to show proof of residency, including lease agreements, house titles and utility bills, identification such as children’s Social Security numbers and documents verifying legal guardianship. They also are required to sign an affidavit swearing to the accuracy of the information.

But officials want all currently enrolled families to prove their residency again before the 2010-11 school year. In addition, officials hope that a recently established anonymous tip line will tempt more students and parents to turn in classmates using fake addresses.

An accurate count of legitimate students is essential as the district prepares to change its funding source to property tax revenues rather than attendance-based state money, officials said. In a controversial decision, the school board voted last week to end special permits provided to hundreds of students who live outside the city.

The recertification proposal has won general support. Some permit families, though, say the district should have dealt with the fake address issue before moving to restrict permits.

Board members argue that it is especially important that Beverly Hills taxpayers not have to subsidize the education of students who lie about their residency.

“Part of the problem is we have no idea of the scope of the problem,” said board member Brian David Goldberg. “I’ve heard estimates of 100 to 500 students. Most families don’t want to be tattletales or informants. But we can and should address this issue now.”

Goldberg said some parents have reported setting up play dates for their children and finding that their classmates live in Los Angeles rather than Beverly Hills. Also raising suspicion is returned mail such as report cards, said Alex Cherniss, the district’s director of human resources.

The student using the virtual address was identified when the district staff realized it wasn’t a livable address, Cherniss said. The young woman apparently had registered in the Beverly Hills district without the knowledge of her parents, he added. Most students who are caught are made to return to their home schools immediately.

“There are a lot of ways people can manipulate the system,” Cherniss said.

Using false addresses to get into desirable schools is not unique to Beverly Hills.

The Irvine Unified School District, which moved to a funding system based on property taxes last year, has strengthened its registration process, requiring parents to sign affidavits as well as submit proof of residency, said spokesman Ian Hanigan.

Families in the Irvine district must recertify their residency each year, he said.

In the San Marino Unified School District, registrar Judy Mellick also performs residency checks and said investigations uncover a handful of illegally enrolled students each year. Many times, red flags are raised when middle or high school students don’t know their addresses when asked.

“At that age, that would raise suspicion,” Mellick said. “It’s hard on the students and you can’t blame them because usually they aren’t the ones who are doing it.”

But a Beverly Hills address appears to be the gold standard for many families.

The district’s desirability was even spoofed in an episode of “The Simpsons” last year, when Marge and Homer decide to rent an apartment in the “Waverly Hills” school district so Bart and Lisa can attend a better school. Threatened with a visit by a school inspector, Homer moves to the apartment and tries to make it appear that the children live there.

The experiences of the Beverly Hills district’s real inspector, Robin Reid, rival any such tales.

One memorable incident involved the parent who went to a Beverly Hills home and placed a mailbox with her name on it in the frontyard. The actual owner alerted school officials, who removed the box and expelled the student, Reid said.

In another case, he was offered an envelope filled with cash by a man who had falsified his address. When Reid refused, the man told him that was the way things were done in his country.

The inspector has investigated several incidents in which families use one false address after another to try to keep their children in school. In one case, it took him two years to prove fraud because the family was so adept at covering its tracks. In another case, parents who had falsified an address so their child could attend Beverly Hills schools were found to live in Hawthorne.

Reid, himself a product of Beverly Hills schools, has been on the job for 15 years. Like the best fictional private eyes, he stakes out homes and follows students to and from school. Over the years, he has developed a good rapport with apartment owners and landlords and notified police when one was found to be selling Beverly Hills addresses on Craigslist.

Most distressing, he said, is interviewing nervous children who want to be honest but are pressured by their parents to lie. “I want to err on the side of children, of caution, because you are determining their future,” he said. “So you have to be real careful. A lot of watching, interviewing and research goes into it. I do find that some people we investigate live here. Not everyone is lying and cheating, and I feel good when I find that.”