Are Border School Districts Defrauding Arizona Taxpayers?

Fences everywhere, but Naco Elementary is wide open. The school’s fence is in the foreground and off in the distance the border fence can be seen.

On school days, children trickle, and at times, stream through the Naco Port of Entry from Mexico to attend Naco Elementary School in Arizona. Some on foot, some in carpools, the children, ranging from kindergarten age to high schoolers, pass through the port in rapid fashion.

On any given school day, hundreds of children passed through the ports of entry across Arizona to attend public schools. The students present crumpled up and otherwise tattered birth certificates or laminated ID cards showing that they are either U.S. citizens, or otherwise legally eligible to be present in the U.S. Their persons and possessions – mostly backpacks – pass through uninspected by the Customs and Border Patrol agents manning the ports of entry.

Naco Port of Entry from Mexico May 6, 2016

The agents at the Naco Port claim that there is no need to inspect the children or their belongings because over the years they have come to know them, and would conduct an inspection should a student ever give a “tell” that something might not be on the up-and-up. One close look at the beautiful and mostly happy faces, informs the viewer that these kids are nothing but innocents who are ready to learn and play.

Students equal funding; more kids – more money

Everything does appear to be on the up-and-up. It is perfectly acceptable for non-resident students to attend Arizona schools. They can be found all across Arizona. In some instances, in schools on Arizona’s borders, intergovernmental agreements are reached to ensure that kids go to the nearest best school. Unless however that intergovernmental agreement provides for a waiver, the students’ families are required to pay tuition to the state – other than their own – for their education. In the state of Arizona, that tuition is set by the school boards.

When we inquired as to whether Naco students were paying tuition in 2014, Chis Kotterman with the ADE told the ADI in an email response:

“Any student who does not reside within the state of Arizona is not eligible for submission by a public school for state funding. Non-residents who wish to attend an Arizona public school must pay reasonable tuition set by the governing board of the school.

Foreign students who have a J-1 visa (foreign exchange student) may be admitted without payment of tuition, as may certain other classes of foreign students, but they still must reside in Arizona during their time in school.

If a student does not live within the state of Arizona, and ADE discovers via audit that the student was submitted for state funding, ADE will attempt to recover the state aid wrongfully paid, which the department has successfully done before.

Arizona schools are prohibited as a matter of federal law from attempting to determine whether or not a student is in the country legally, or even if the student has the proper visa that allows the student to cross the border to attend school, in most cases. If the student can prove to the district or charter’s satisfaction that the student resides in Arizona, then the student must be admitted. If the school is not satisfied that the student resides in Arizona, the school must charge tuition, but it still is not able to ask questions about what type of visa the student has or whether the student has one at all. Questions must be limited to where the student actually lives.”

Arizona State Representative Bob Thorpe stated, “It is not illegal to verify a student’s residency, as was the case in the Arizona vs. California matter. The courts have only ruled that schools cannot deny undocumented alien students, who live within U.S. borders, a publicly-funded education.” However, according to Thorpe, “School officials, who use scarce public dollars to educate students who do not physically reside within the United States, need to be fully investigated by ADE and Attorney General investigators and held accountable for committing financial fraud against local, state and federal taxpayers.”

According to one Arizona Department of Education source, non-resident students are designated for accounting purposes as “nonfundable.” That means that the Arizona taxpayers are not on the hook for their education and the ADE is not responsible for providing funding for their education.

Those same sources report that Naco Elementary does not report any students as “nonrefundable.” That means that if their attendance is claimed by the school, the taxpayers of Arizona foot the bill for their education. Officials at Naco Elementary did not return calls when asked to explain how it was possible that so many students, who obviously do not live in the state of Arizona, could be attending Arizona schools without paying tuition.

Often times, students will present documentation from a friend or relative living on the U.S. side of the border to “prove” their Arizona residency, according to the ADE. Too many schools have in the past done little to confirm the true nature of a student’s residency.

In the case of the students in Needles, California, it took an ADE audit to force the Arizona school officials to become more circumspect when it comes to inspecting documents offered by enrollees. It is now not so easy for a California kid to pass themselves off as an Arizona resident.

While cheating can be lucrative, sometimes it can turn out to be expensive. In May 2010 the ADE claimed in that 105 students were attending schools in Ajo but are actually living across the border in Mexico. The state fined the Ajo Unified $1.2 million, the amount the state claims was spent to educate those students. At the time, the ADE released a video showing cars crossing the border at the Lukeville Port of Entry and dropping students off for a Pima County bus headed for Ajo, according to the East Valley Tribune.

Nothing changes, if nothing changes

Douglas Unified School District41833667
Bisbee Unified School District995754
Naco Elementary School District284298
Benson Unified School District10641193
Nogales Unified School District61435618
Apache Elementary School District216

In 2005, then Naco School Superintendent Patricia Marsh told a KVOA reporter that at least 5 students were paying tuition of nearly $3,000 a year. “If they don’t live in Arizona they will be charged tuition as a non-resident,” Marsh told the reporter. At the time, it was reported that the school had over 250 students. According to the most recent “Dollars in the Classroom” report by the Arizona Auditor General, in 2014, the school’s enrollment stood at 299. That is remarkable given that neighboring schools and the state as a whole has decreased in population.

If in fact, the majority, or all of the students we saw on Friday do not live in Arizona, and do not pay tuition, the taxpayers paid approximately $8,075 per student during the 2014-2015 school year for students for whom they are not responsible according to the Arizona Auditor General’s Report.

Since the ADI’s initial report on Naco Elementary, district officials have refused to respond to repeated inquiries. It would appear that they are quite aware that the kids are crossing the border to attend the small school. The school’s principal stands in the roadway facing toward the border fence greeting the children as they approach the school. The happy children greet him with smiles and ‘holas.’

Few Arizonans would deny kids an opportunity to get an excellent education. Unfortunately, most Arizonans are still struggling with the effects Great Recession and Naco is a “C” school so taxpayers are paying what little they have to give kids a less than excellent education.

Percentages represent the change in enrolment fr0m 2001 to 2015
Percentages represent the change in enrolment fr0m 2001 to 2015