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Families lied about residency to gain top CPS slots: IG

Walter Payton College Prep High School, 1034 N. Wells St. | Sun-Times file photo

“Numerous” families have been caught lying about where they live to land prized slots at the city’s selective-enrollment high schools, according to a new report that also highlights the Chicago Board of Education’s limited willingness to crack down on the cheating.

In one of the more egregious cases, a student was kicked out of Walter Payton College Prep High School after submitting a false application that said she lived in Englewood when she actually lived in Beverly. Then she managed to transfer the next day to Northside College Prep High School — a top school she was not qualified to attend based on her eighth-grade application, according to the annual report of the Office of the Inspector General for the Chicago Board of Education.

Nicholas Schuler, the inspector general, told the Chicago Sun-Times that the fraud uncovered is a “sampling” and he suspects the residency abuse is more widespread. The report highlights 18 investigations into residency fraud.

“I get the idea that, yes, it’s more,” Schuler said Sunday. “I can’t say exactly how many. I think it’s a significant problem.”

Schuler said his budget — about $1.8 million last year — makes it harder to do a more widespread investigation.

The report, which covers the period from July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015, points out that under current policies, parents have little to fear even if they’re caught cheating because monetary penalties are still much lower than enrolling their kids at pricey private schools.

“It is widely known that the selective-enrollment application process is highly stressful for students and families, and that it causes no small amount of tears, anxiety and lost sleep,” states the report. “Indeed, some families decided to remain in Chicago, rather than move to the suburbs because of the chance their children might be accepted at a selective-enrollment high school. Those upstanding and hard-working families who follow the rules bear the brunt of the damage caused by enrollment fraud.”

The report highlights two types of residency fraud: families who live in the suburbs but claim to live in the city; and families who live in the city but claim to live in a poorer neighborhood to boost their chances of getting into a top school. As part of the selection process, CPS considers the socio-economic level of the neighborhood where a student lives.

In one case, a student was admitted to Whitney Young Magnet High School based on an application form that said she lived in Bronzeville, when she in fact lived in North Center. When the inspector general’s office told CPS, the girl was kicked out of Whitney Young at the end of her freshman year. The student attended another school, before re-enrolling a semester later at Whitney Young, according to the report.

“The OIG was never notified about the transfer and was not consulted,” the report states.

In another case, a student from Des Plaines attended Walter Payton for four years, the report states. The student’s father lied to the school “on numerous occasions” about where the family lives, “submitting a phony lease for a Chicago condominium unit.”

The district lacks a “robust Board policy that establishes lasting and meaningful penalties for selective-enrollment fraud,” according to the report.

Historically, the Board of Education has also been reluctant to kick seniors out of schools they weren’t entitled to attend for fear of disrupting their education, the report found.

Among other things, the inspector general recommended that students with falsified applications attending CPS selective-enrollment high schools be permanently banned from attending any of those schools. The inspector general also suggested a penalty ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 for every year a student spends at a selective-enrollment school they aren’t qualified to attend.

In an emailed statement, Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Emily Bittner said: “CPS welcomes the annual recommendations of the Inspector General. Taxpayers and parents deserve accountability at every level — which is why the District began top-to-bottom audits under the leadership of new CEO Forrest Claypool, sharing relevant findings with the Inspector General. We are working and will work to address the findings of this report.”

Elsewhere in the report:

• A high school engineer tried to enlist a vendor in a kickback scheme that involved inflating the actual cost of the vendor’s work. The vendor reported the engineer to CPS. The engineer was arrested and indicted on charges of bribery, official misconduct and attempted theft.

• In two instances, school-based workers took donated museum passes intended for student use and sold them online. In both cases, the workers resigned.

The inspector general received 1,373 complaints during the 2015 fiscal year, with allegations of everything from misconduct to waste to fraud, including 341 anonymous complaints. The largest share of complaints — about 21 percent — concerned mismanagement; 14 percent dealt with residency issues.