photo by Pixabay user Wokandapix
Sofia Pignetelli is a third grader who has a bed to sleep in every night, according to her mom. But to school officials in suburban Port Chester, New York, Sofia might as well be homeless.
Those officials say Sofia doesn’t live at the address where she sleeps each night. In fact, according to New York school officials more broadly, Sofia does not live anywhere. That’s why she has missed at least three weeks of school since New Year’s Day, and possibly more by now.
The whole situation sounds counterintuitive. New York is renowned for the aggressiveness with which it claims that people who think they live somewhere else are actually residents of the Empire State, the better to tax them. A lot of the state’s tax money goes to support local school districts that jostle for it like a litter of pups. Any district that takes Sofia will get the state financial stipend that comes with her.
But that stipend does not cover the entire tuition bill for a third grader in New York. In Westchester County, where Port Chester is located, it does not even come close. With a population of just about 1 million residents, the county divides its students among 40 different districts. Just across the Hudson River in Rockland County (population 326,000), a network of eight districts almost seems efficient by comparison. Nassau County (1.36 million population) on Long Island, directly across Long Island Sound from Port Chester, is home to 56 school districts.
Because most Florida districts are countywide, residency disputes like the one that ensnared Sofia Pignetelli are almost unknown there. Melissa Pignetelli told local news outlets that she and her daughter live in Port Chester with Sofia’s grandmother, blocks away from Sofia’s former school. Melissa’s ex-husband, who is not Sofia’s biological father, watches Sofia after school while Melissa works two jobs. The district hired private investigators, who followed Sofia to the ex-husband’s home in neighboring Harrison, New York. This led Port Chester school officials to kick her out as a freeloading, border-hopping, nonresident mooch. That’s a lot to pile on the shoulders of a little kid.
Though Melissa Pignetelli denies that Sofia lives in Harrison, she decided to try to register her daughter there for the time being. But officials in Harrison turned Sofia down – for not being a district resident. Thus, all these carefully balanced family arrangements rendered a child academically homeless.
Pignetelli appealed her daughter’s case to New York’s interim commissioner of education, Shannon Tahoe, who has filled the post since November. That appeal was denied. This is the way the system is designed. The commissioner is supposed to uphold a local district’s residency ruling unless it is arbitrary and capricious – the lowest standard to which a government decision is typically held.
But residency is often an arbitrary decision by nature. New York’s vague education law does not help. The law bases children’s residency on that of their guardian. Residency is supposed to be determined “by one’s physical presence as an inhabitant within the district and intent to reside within the district.” So if, for example, a child sleeps at a grandparent’s home while the custodial parent is away for work, where is that child supposed to go to school? Any answer will be arbitrary to some degree.
Pignetelli has said she will file a second appeal on her daughter’s behalf.
Many New York districts accept nonresident students, but only if guardians pay steep tuition beyond the state stipend. Districts back up that revenue stream with aggressive investigation and enforcement. In a case in Rockland County several years ago, the previous education commissioner readmitted a pair of children to the Clarkstown school district. During the appeal process, it came out that an investigator who monitored the family’s out-of-district home had not also watched a second home inside the district to determine whether the children returned there at night.
New York’s fragmented public education leads to big variations in school quality and opportunities across short distances. Many years ago, my wife and I paid tuition to send our daughter to public school in a village several miles away from where we lived in Yonkers, New York. We later moved to Hastings on Hudson, just across the border from Yonkers, to give our children access to its smaller but highly regarded schools. We played by the rules, but cheating is common.
It has been, in fact, for a long time. Almost 50 years ago, I attended the Bronx High School of Science, a competitive and sought-after school in one of New York City’s outer boroughs. Two of my classmates took a bus each day nearly to the city line. They then walked home across the border to Mount Vernon, New York, whose school system offered nothing approaching my school’s cachet.
New York’s education structure is inefficient, its product uneven, and its residency rules vague and subjective. When a third grader has no place to hang her book bag, the result is grotesque.