City Schools of Decatur uses private investigators to sniff out fishy enrollments

Posted by Dena Mellick May 21, 2015
City Schools of Decatur Administrative Offices. Photo by Dena Mellick

City Schools of Decatur Administrative Offices. Photo by Dena Mellick

This story has been updated.

By Dena Mellick, Associate editor

As enrollment rises at City Schools of Decatur, aggressive enforcement has been put in place to ensure non-residents aren’t illegally attending the schools. That’s according to two School Board members speaking to the Decatur Heights Neighborhood Association Tuesday evening.

Board Chair Garrett Goebel told the group that CSD is the fastest growing school district in the state of Georgia for the fifth year running. The Decatur School Board voted to officially ask the City Commission to put a $75 million GO bond referendum on the ballot this November to pay for school construction to address rising enrollment.

“If that’s approved by the voters in November, that would give us 90 percent of the funds that we need – capital funds – to add additional capacity so that we could meet our estimated capacity needs through the year 2020,” said Goebel.

Over the past several years, CSD has also aggressively been going after non-residents trying to illegally attend city schools as another way to address capacity.

“Principals are aware of some of the suspicious behavior,” Board member Julie Rhame told the neighborhood association. “If they’re always tardy or if they don’t have kids over. You can tell. We have someone on staff that investigates. We send out private [investigators]. We send out our law firm. We have taken people to court. We don’t want to have to spend money on litigation, but some people are pretty brazen about it.”

Goebel added, “We do it aggressively in a sense, because we know that … if you get behind on that, or word gets out, it’s too late.”

Rhame explained that when she first started on the board nearly 12 years ago, there were 330 students under investigation.

“That was bigger than [the enrollment of] most of our elementary schools at the time,” Rhame said. She said Superintendent Phyllis Edwards has taken the problem seriously since coming on in 2003.

“We do audits too,” Rhame said. “We make you prove your residency every year, but we also have random audits. I’ve been randomly audited three times.”

In a follow-up interview, Rhame told Decaturish there is no current litigation related to school enrollment, but CSD has taken parents to civil court in the past. Decaturish’s Ralph Ellis reported in 2012 for that CSD settled with a mother whose residence was actually in Lithonia, where she claimed a homestead exemption.

Rhame said that’s one of the first things they do in the investigations – look where a person’s homestead exemption is taken.

“Many school systems in the area have taken parents to court, some for criminal charges, because it’s a felony to falsify documents to a government entity, which we are. We haven’t done the criminal version, but the civil, so they can correct themselves,” Rhame told Decaturish.

Decaturish emailed the school system to ask how much CSD has spent on private investigators and investigations into out-of-district students. Spokeswoman Courtney Burnett said CSD has spent $900 on residency investigations for 2014-2015 on people “not legally domiciled within the city limits of … Decatur.” Burnett said the staff member in charge of investigations is the Enrollment Specialist who “coordinates home visits with other staff members.”

The discussion of residency came up at Tuesday’s meeting when a neighbor asked about out-of-district students who pay tuition to enroll – a practice that CSD recently ended. However, Rhame said students who were already in the system were grandfathered in so they could finish out their school career.

Rhame and Goebel said in addition to the major issues of rising enrollment and the GO bond referendum, finding a replacement for Superintendent Edwards is a big focus right now. Edwards announced in March that she is resigning.

The Board has selected a search firm to find her replacement, and it’s also asking the community for help to develop a leadership profile to include as part of the job description for the next superintendent. City Schools of Decatur staff, students, parents, and community members can share their thoughts through a Superintendent Search Survey available online until June 3rd.

There will also be four community forums to gather input on what people want in a new superintendent.

Those forums will be held in the Board of Education Room at the Central Office at the Beacon Municipal Center located at 125 Electric Avenue on the following dates:

  • Monday, June 1, 2015 at 6:30 p.m.
  • Tuesday, June 2, 2015 at 6:30 p.m.
  • Wednesday, June 3, 2015 at 6:30 p.m.
  • Wednesday, August 5, 2015 at 6:30 p.m.

Rhame said the Board hopes to have a selection of candidates in the fall.

Disclaimer: The author is a dues-paying member of the Decatur Heights Neighborhood Association.

This story has been updated with CSD’s answer to our inquiries. 

About Dena Mellick

Dena Mellick is the Associate Editor of

View all posts by Dena Mellick

  • Darren

    Why are these people given an opportunity to “correct themselves”? Criminal activity should be met with criminal litigation. Slaps on the wrist will do nothing to deter this activity going forward. At least make an example our of a few of these people.

    • Dena Mellick

      Hi Darren — as I was informed, using the civil system means those caught and litigated against pay back tuition owed and they get kicked out of the school system.

      • Darren

        That is the equivalent to getting caught stealing a car and the penalty is that you have to return it and pay for the mileage that you used. That is not a deterrent to those that would try to illegally steal resources paid for by other people’s tax dollars. Simply making these people “correct” themselves is just inviting people to keep trying this.

        • Hans

          prosecuting a criminal offense is a fair bit more difficult and expensive than a civil one. The outcomes are also far more uncertain, since juries tend to be sympathetic to parents acting out of desperation. Lastly, the civil charge allows the jurisdiction to recoup the cost of both the litigation and the services provided.

          Given that, I think the civil approach makes much more sense. Do we want to take a low-probability approach to put a kid’s parents in jail, at our great expense? or do we want to recover the costs and stop the activity? The latter seems preferable to me.

          I’m sympathetic to wanting to send a message, but hitting someone with a multi-thousand dollar bill and retaining the right to prosecute the criminal activity if it recurs feels like an effective deterrent.

          • Darren

            You make great points – thanks. I still don’t think it’s a strong enough disincentive to keep people from trying this but I get what you’re saying. It seems likely that this kind of activity is only going to increase with the new glut of 1 bedroom apartments about to come online soon in Decatur.

          • Andrew

            Can you elaborate about the 1 bedroom apartments? From what I’ve seen, everything available so far starts at $1,400 a month. Why would someone outside Decatur rent an in-town apartment as a front, risking hefty costs and potential prosecution, to attend CSD when you can put your kid in a fine private school for that amount?

    • Viola Masterson

      Honestly, can you blame them for trying? The situation in DeKalb County Schools is so dire that parents won’t bat an eye at committing “criminal activity” to get a decent education for their kids; a minor offense considering what’s at stake.

      A reasonable superintendent might see this activity as a wake-up call. Like, “Gee, people are willing to commit fraud, risk legal action, and pay fines rather than send their kids to DeKalb Schools.” But whenever parents try to get involved, or make inroads with charters, Michael Thurmond won’t listen (see: Decaturish “DeKalb Super won’t budge on Charter Cluster idea”).

      People are just at a loss for what to do. I’m not saying it’s right, just that I sympathize.

      • Darren

        It’s not a minor offense. It’s stealing my tax dollars and contributing to overcrowding.

  • An American Patriot

    On a smaller scale of course but, isn’t this the same as illegal immigrants coming into our country, going to our schools, collecting welfare, receiving medical benefits, all at no charge to them. Of course the American Taxpayer pays through the nose. What the CSD is doing is what our DHS should be doing much more aggressively. We have laws and those laws should be enforced.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is, “Your support for aggressive action should be the same on the federal level as on a local (CSD) level. I know it’s a little early but, we have the most important presidential election in our lifetimes coming up in November, 2016. Please vote your conscience on this issue and let’s begin the process of putting things back in order for your family’s sake as well as for the survival of our great country.

    • Chris

      Illegal immigrant children have a constitutional right to attend school to 12th grade, based partly under the reasoning that they shouldn’t be punished for their parents’ actions. They also are actual residents of the county they live in and pay property tax, which funds the school. So, no, I don’t think it’s the same. What’s happening in Decatur is far worse.

  • Natasha Brown

    Illegal enrollment is a factor in overcrowding, but what about all of the building going on in Decatur? Knocking down all of the older homes (with retiree age owners – ie no kids living there) and building these huge monstrosity homes, bringing in new younger families with children… And all the building between our existing homes to put new construction homes… That’s not part of the problem? Maybe we need to be a bit more concerned about the building industry in Decatur! We have 3 new houses coming up behind our house and 2 on my street. Look at downtown Decatur and the new condos going up – did they think people moving there wouldn’t hv children who will need to go to school IN Decatur??? This has got to stop or the charm and sense of community in our neighborhoods (along with our schools) will suffer…

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